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Teachers on strike: "Public schools everywhere get shortchanged"

Impact of teachers' strikes across America

It looks like 2019 is shaping up to be another year of teachers' strikes.

Oakland, California educators picketed on Thursday with the goal of gaining more resources for students, such as smaller class sizes and more counselors. And in West Virginia, where teachers went on strike this week, teachers protested a proposed bill that would have provided them with a pay raise but contained measures they argued would siphon funding away from public schools. In Los Angeles, teachers went on strike in January to win measures like caps on class sizes.

Instead of the traditional labor protest over wages and benefits, teachers are calling out a wide range of problems that they argue weaken public schools. It's a crisis that's been in the works since cities and states cut their school funding during the recession. Even though the economy has since recovered, states on average are now paying $161 less per child than they did a decade ago, according to an analysis of Census data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

"All states have have the same problem," said Kym Randolph, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Educators Association. "This is about a group of people who chose education as s career who care desperately for these kids. Unfortunately, our public schools everywhere kind of get shortchanged."

West Virginia and California school funding declined more than 11 percent from 2008, when the recession started, through 2015, after adjusting for inflation, the CPBB found. In all, 29 states shaved their spending on education during that time.

Doing more with less

Teachers say they are handling more issues while receiving fewer resources. 

Teaching "has changed dramatically" since she started three decades ago, said Sarita Beckett, a 6th grade math teacher in West Virginia. She estimates that half the students in her classroom come from families struggling with financial issues, which impacts their ability to buy school supplies and meals. For now, schools and local charities are stepping in to fill those needs, she said.

West Virginia teachers continue strike against education bill

"You used to have one or two students with an issue like that," she said. "A lot of those folks aren't people that are unemployed. A lot of them are just lower-paid individuals -- the work they do doesn't provide enough for their families."

She added, "We have to provide for those basic needs before they can be expected to do academics."

A center of the opioid crisis, West Virginia is also feeling the impact in its schools, said WVEA's Randolph. "We have more kids in foster care than ever before, and we have more children living with someone other than their parents than ever before. We feed more kids than ever before," she said. "All those problems come right into our public schools."

Charter schools compete for money

Charter schools are another bone of contention in the recent strikes. In West Virginia, educators protested a bill that would have created charter schools in the state, a measure that supporters said would provide families with school choice and drive scholastic achievement. 

But West Virginia school teachers, already coping with lower funding, pointed out that adding charter schools would result in all schools receiving less funding because it would lead to more schools splitting an already diminished pot of school funding. Charter schools, while privately run, rely on public funding for their budgets. 

Thousands of Los Angeles teachers strike to protest budget cuts

A similar debate is at the center of the Oakland strike, with the Oakland Education Association questioning the Oakland school district's decision to spend $57 million on charter schools. 

"Years of chronic underfunding, the unregulated growth of an unaccountable charter industry, and misguided school district priorities have starved Oakland schools of the resources from which I benefited as a child," wrote Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, in the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Living on a teacher's salary

Teachers' salaries have also failed to keep up. Teachers earn 1.6 percent less than in 1999 and 5 percent below their 2009 pay, adjusted for inflation, according to the Department of Education.

West Virginia teachers earn average annual pay of about $46,000, below the national average of almost $59,000, Department of Education data shows. 

Oakland teachers say they're struggling with another issue: the high cost of living in the San Francisco area. A starting teacher in Oakland would have to shell out 60 percent of their income to afford a one-bedroom apartment, the teacher's union said. Housing is considered a financial stretch if consumers pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent or their mortgage. 

In Denver, teachers went on strike earlier this month, winning an 11.7 percent pay raise and cost of living increases. 

Teachers "didn't expect to make a lot of money, but they expected to make a decent living," said West Virginia's Beckett. 

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