With its quaint downtown, treelined streets, old houses, and two train lines into Manhattan, Montclair, New Jersey, is one of the New York metropolitan area’s best-known bedroom communities. It’s a suburb with enough “urb” to keep hipsters happy. The New York Times describes it as home to “an array of prominent journalists, academics, and television celebrities.” Montclair is a progressive bastion and wears its politics on its sleeve. It is both wealthy and diverse, and it takes its diversity seriously, having implemented a voluntary public-school-choice system via magnet schools as part of a desegregation plan in 1977. According to the district’s website, all of the schools are “outstanding.” With some of the state’s highest property taxes, one would expect nothing less.
All of these things are perhaps good reasons to have heard of Montclair, but most people know it now for a different one. Its “outstanding” schools are closed for in-person learning. As a result, tensions between local families, the district’s leadership, and the local teachers union, the Montclair Education Association, are spilling over into public view. It’s arguable that the township’s residents should have seen this coming. In 2020, they elected Sean Spiller as their mayor. Spiller appoints the local school board, which negotiates the teacher contract. He is also the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and the parent union of the Montclair Education Association. With the teachers union on three sides of the table, Montclair parents desirous of an in-person option may feel boxed in, and that claustrophobia could continue indefinitely. NJEA president Marie Blistan recently offered that New Jerseyans should be prepared for “interruptions in learning for maybe another year.” Where in-person learning is concerned, the only thing the town’s residents can be certain of is uncertainty.
Montclair and the current labor difficulties with its teachers might seem like the start of a long period of labor strife catalyzed by the Covid crisis. It is, however, the end stage of a series of labor actions undertaken by local and national teachers unions starting in 2018 and scaled up later by a confluence of factors, most notably the closing of schools for in-person learning in the spring of 2020 in many places across the country. For all intents and purposes, many American cities and towns are now in what amounts to a rolling national teacher strike. That may seem harsh, as many teachers are, after all, working hard to teach via Zoom and grade student work. But it is the reality, as the effect has been to deprive tens of millions of students of the option of in-person instruction. Whether this national job action achieves its goals is an open question, but the effects on student learning, particularly for low-income students, are sharpening into view, and they are, quite simply, disastrous.
Red for Ed
To better understand what is happening today, it is worth examining the activism of teachers unions in recent years as they confronted state and local governments. In 2018, we saw a series of teacher strikes and job actions that captured the nation’s attention. What we now know as Red for Ed—marked both by the red t-shirts that became the uniform of teachers-union activism and, perhaps also, the Republican political leanings of states in which the strikes happened (Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia)—were teacher protests at a scale perhaps not seen since those in Wisconsin opposing then-Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 reforms, which, among others things, made it more difficult for unions to maintain their representation of public-school teachers.
The protests in 2018 provide compelling context for escalating teachers-union activism in the years that follow. But first, they highlighted the issues that ostensibly matter to teachers unions and, perhaps by proxy, teachers themselves.
At the root of the Kentucky protests were public-employee pensions, an unpopular incumbent trying to change them, and, to a lesser extent, tax-credit scholarship legislation that would have helped private schools. Kentucky’s state-employee pension plan is one of the nation’s worst funded, with approximately 16 percent of the assets it needed to meet expected liabilities. The state’s Republican governor at the time, Matt Bevin, along with the legislature, passed pension-reform legislation that the Kentucky Education Association and other public-employee unions opposed through a series of sickouts and days of action at the Capitol that essentially shut down many of the state’s school districts.
With Kentucky teachers engaged, Governor Bevin was summarily defeated by the state’s attorney general, Andy Beshear, a Democrat who opposed the pension plan and who benefitted from substantial teacher and teachers-union activism. As Vox reported at the time, Kentucky Education Association president Eddie Campbell asserted that he’d never seen teachers so engaged in the political process. He also stated that “the case they made to their communities changed the course of this election and the course of public education in this state.”
In Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona, the issue was more straightforward: teacher pay. And the teacher strikes, sickouts, rallies, and activism overall were effective in achieving the goal of increasing teacher pay. Oklahoma legislators increased teacher pay by on average $6,000 (approximately 16 percent). West Virginia’s teachers won a 5-percent increase, while Arizona’s protests saw Governor Doug Ducey increase teacher pay by 20 percent preemptively.
While the fight over public-employee pensions is incredibly complicated, there were winning arguments to be made for increasing teacher compensation in these states. Ultimately, those arguments carried the day. But the pay increases were not the most important achievements of these efforts. Instead, as a series of advocacy actions, teachers unions were able to test a range of important theories about what was possible and, more importantly, what was tolerable to the citizens in their respective states.
When teachers strike, local economies are affected. Working parents may need to stay home and watch their children, and the education of children is disrupted in proportion to the length of the strike. If there was any lesson to be learned from these early efforts, it was that teachers unions, now emboldened, could cause massive disruption to daily life and emerge better off for it economically.
But the strategy had only been tested in red states. To understand whether it could work across the country, it would need to be successful in one of the nation’s large urban districts, as well. In 2019, strikes in Los Angeles and Chicago provided just this opportunity.
Hooray for Hollywood
United Teachers of Los Angeles’s weeklong strike in January of 2019 disrupted the city, its politics, and relationships between teachers, families, and over 630,000 students and their schools. It was a tension-rich affair exhaustively covered by the national media. And it featured a cast of characters right out of a Hollywood film. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the leader of United Teachers of Los Angeles, appeared in the role of champion of the common man, economic justice, and worker rights. Austin Beutner, the district superintendent and Caputo-Pearl’s ostensible foil, had been a highly successful businessman. And the city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, rounded out the production as the charismatic dealmaker with higher political aspirations. The tilt was watched in living rooms across America. Democratic presidential candidates chimed in in support of the striking teachers.
In contrast to the Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona cases, in Los Angles, the union failed to achieve a clear financial win. Beutner, who had taken to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to explain the district’s dire fiscal straits, exacerbated by pension commitments many described as unsustainable, had put a deal on the table before the strike. That was the deal that was largely accepted after the strike. The mayor committed to putting a tax increase on the ballot for schools. The initiative wound up getting rejected by voters. But United Teachers of Los Angeles claimed victory anyway. They’d stopped the city for the better part of the week. Soon after, raising teacher pay became a key element of the platforms of several of the Democratic presidential candidates, including California’s own Senator Kamala Harris. The union had also opposed charter schools in the city and recommended a moratorium as a policy plank in its list of demands. The school board voted 5-1 in support of a resolution doing just that.
If the Los Angeles strike was about how to get to yes, the Chicago strike was about one word: “no.” Newly elected mayor Lori Lightfoot, a progressive’s progressive in a state where unions are an essential fixture of daily political life, offered the Chicago Teachers Union a 14-percent raise over five years at the start of their negotiations. The union refused. On October 17, 2019, the CTU began a 15-day strike that disrupted the lives and learning of 300,000 students. The mayor and the CTU eventually reached an agreement.
Los Angeles and Chicago answered the question the initial Red for Ed efforts posed: could broadscale teacher activism in the form of job actions and outright strikes result in financial or policy wins for those same unions? The answer was clearly yes. These large-scale disruptions could extract policy victories from elected officials on both sides of the political aisle.
Covid-19 and the Rolling National Teacher Strike
While the efficacy of strikes and job actions in the era of labor solidarity seems to have been more than proven, it is still difficult, both logistically and legally, for teachers unions to strike in many parts of the country. In New York, for instance, the state’s Taylor Law prohibits public employees from striking. Disregarding this law can have serious consequences (as the Transport Workers Union once discovered) such as fines and the suspension of automatic dues collection. As labor watchdog Mike Antonucci has noted, a national teacher strike would rapidly deplete the strike funds of both national teachers unions. In normal times, such a sweeping action would be unworkable.
But these are not normal times.
There was not simply a pandemic, but a pandemic amid a presidential election that ended in a victory for President Biden. That added to the reopening debate the context not only of recent teachers union activism, but also of Biden’s campaign proposals—future public-school aid in the forms of both Covid relief and dramatically increased federal contributions to K–12 education funding, most likely in increased Title I dollars. Biden’s proposed tripling of federal Title I education dollars annually, to about $48 billion from the current $16 billion, would allow for a significant expansion of local teacher headcount, bolstering union dues while circumventing the need to raise increased funds for teacher pay at the local level where the political and financial costs would be more sharply felt. These policy outcomes are quite possibly sufficient incentive to keep schools closed until they are enacted. While no normal set of factors would allow teachers unions to accomplish this, the confluence of Trump, his and state handling of the Covid crisis, the changed politics in Washington with Democrats controlling all levers of government, and the deference America’s families have given health-concerned teachers, has allowed them to. In other words, if you’ve wondered what a national teacher strike might look like and what might cause teachers across the country to arrest local economies and subject millions of students to instruction that may lock in deep learning losses, it’s just like this.
There are, however, some signs that parents and policymakers are tiring of the status quo as they try to return to work, vaccinate citizens, and, most importantly, provide an in-person learning option for all those families who want one, even as half of states now offer Covid vaccinations to teachers. President Biden has made reopening schools a priority of his first 100 days in office, though his standard for “open” seems protean. Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee, with newly released student achievement data that shows deep declines for minority students, is pushing the state’s two largest school districts, Memphis and Nashville, to reopen or at least provide an in-person option to all the families who want one. Washington D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser has filed a temporary restraining order against the Washington Teachers Union to stop talks of a strike as the city works to get 45 percent of its educators back in schools. In the nearby town of Fairfax, Virginia, a parent wrote recently that “There is simply no common-sense explanation for vaccinating teachers ahead of other high-risk groups if they refuse to return to full-time in-person learning.” Preliminary figures in New York City show public-school enrollment is down as much as 4 percent (43,000 students) as its schools oscillate from open to closed, even as in-person enrollment at the city’s Catholic schools increased. The City of San Francisco has sued its own school board and district, which has been closed to in-person learning for 11 months, over reopening.
While the possible political gains attainable with schools closed remain significant, a loss of public goodwill because schools won’t open could be debilitating for teachers unions in the long run and, as a result, to their members, some of whom no doubt want a return to the classroom as well.
And then there is, of course, Montclair, where the district is now suing the Montclair Education Association over its reopening plan. Dr. Jonathan Ponds, the district’s superintendent, said in a statement that “When forced to make a decision between competing interests, I will always do what is best for our students.” For Montclair families and for those in many other towns and cities, the proof will be in the outcome.
Derrell Bradford is executive vice president of 50CAN.