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New Teacher Activism Signals Revolt Against Conservative Ideology

Su Sheridan protests proposed cuts to retirement benefits for public school teachers in Frankfort, Ky., in March. The art teacher at Elkhorn Middle School was one of hundreds of educators in at least 28 central Kentucky schools to hold a "walk in." (Adam Beam / AP)

To “reading, writing and arithmetic,” we can now add “solidarity.”

The new teacher activism—born in West Virginia and spreading to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona—is not a flash in the pan. And it’s about more than the demand for higher wages and benefits. It is a revolt against decades of policies that gutted public institutions.

More immediately, it is a response to the decimation of state spending on education since the 2008 recession. The economy has recovered, but state support for education has not. In an excellent report last November on K-12 expenditures, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that in 29 states, “total state funding per student was lower in the 2015 school year than in the 2008 school year” in real terms.

In Arizona, spending per student was down an astonishing 36.6 percent; in Oklahoma, it had dropped 15.6 percent; in Kentucky, 5.9 percent. Among the states, Concordia University-Portland reported, Arizona and Oklahoma ranked, respectively, 48th and 47th in 2015 per-pupil outlays.

As a marker of our country’s political direction, the teacher strikes and demonstrations are part of a larger upheaval against conservative assumptions that have long been embedded in the country’s thinking, in some cases going back to the 1970s. They should be seen in tandem with the student-led revolt against National Rifle Association orthodoxy on gun control and the mobilization against President Trump.

Progressives and moderates have been winning elections in unlikely places. Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory in a very red Pennsylvania district last month is a prime example of a trend visible all over the nation. In eight special elections in Oklahoma since Trump took office, according to an analysis last month by FiveThirtyEight, the swing to Democrats was 32.1 percentage points. It ranked behind only Kentucky, which held just two special elections in that period.

And progressives have been clawing back lost ground in some of their former strongholds. On Tuesday, a liberal backed by Democrats was elected to Wisconsin’s formally nonpartisan state Supreme Court. Rebecca Dallet’s triumph marked the first time the party had won an open seat on the top court since 1995.

The interaction of broad opposition to Trump, growing engagement on the Democratic side of politics, and specific revolts against conservative ideas suggests that we may be at the beginning of an uprising that transcends the moment. Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College political scientist and the author of “The Reactionary Mind,” argues that what we’re seeing is an attack on the “Prop 13 Order.”

In 1978, California passed the property-tax-slashing Proposition 13, which portended the Reagan Revolution and a general shift to the right. The measure reflected conservative activism and the power of right-wing money. But it was also a sign of genuine popular feeling that property taxes on average homeowners had risen too high, too fast. The anti-tax movement quickly took hold across the country.

Today’s rebellion, Prop 13 in reverse, is also built on genuine disaffection, in this case over the impact of deep budget cutbacks in conservative states, usually to support tax cuts tilted toward corporations and the well-off.

The teachers are bringing this home by refusing to confine their energies to their own pay. They are highlighting the deterioration of the conditions students face—aging textbooks, crumbling buildings, and reductions in actual teaching time. About 20 percent of Oklahoma’s school districts have gone to four-day weeks.

The focus on school funding could also transform our education debate. A legitimate desire for education reform and widespread interest in charter schools as one vehicle for change have often elided into unrestrained teacher- and union-bashing. Parts of the right have used both as cover for undermining the very idea of public education.

The red state insurrections are a reminder of something that can be lost in our back-and-forth about school reform: Money matters. You can’t run a decent school system on the cheap. If you could, successful suburban school districts wouldn’t invest so much, and teacher pay is part of this. Genuine reformers aren’t wrong to demand improvements in school quality. But they need to separate themselves unequivocally from those who simply want to trash public services.

It’s too early to be certain that 2018 is 1978 turned on its head. But it would be short-sighted to overlook the signs that conservative ideology is on the defensive and that most voters are exhausted by divisive and short-sighted presidential leadership. We have a lot of problems to solve, and the old right-wing bromides are only making them worse.

E.J. Dionne Jr.
Columnist
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. Considered among the best of America's new crop of columnists, E.J. Dionne combines his passions for people and politics with his keen…
E.J. Dionne Jr.

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