Last week, teachers called out of school to protest at the South Carolina Statehouse — a fitting final act to a school year already defined by teacher strikes across the nation.
Earlier in the year, teachers went on strike in Los Angeles, Denver, West Virginia and other areas. The teachers’ narratives say they strike for higher pay and lower class sizes, winning victories for children against all odds.
But the real story isn’t so pretty in many places: It’s a tale of politicians working to kill charter schools, sacrifice opportunity for their students and hurt children’s education, just as they’ve done for decades.
West Virginia offers the clearest example of this pattern. In mid-February, teachers across the state went on strike for the second time in as many years. While teachers last year protested their salaries and health care costs, this year they protested a bill that would allow the first charter schools to open in the state. After only two days of striking, the legislature scrapped the bill.
Union officials crowed that they wrestled victory from powerful special interests, and myriad op-eds and news features backed them up. But that’s not what happened.
In reality, the bill was never going to pass. Charter school laws have been dying in the West Virginia legislature for nearly two decades. Republicans have a wide majority in both houses and hold the governor’s mansion — a two-day strike poses no real threat to their hold on the government. The powers that be in the Mountain State just have no interest in creating educational opportunities for the students of their state.
Consequently, West Virginia is one of only six states without public charter schools, representing a small fraction of our nation’s population. That’s part of why West Virginia’s educational outcomes are far worse than the national average. Their students perform well below average on proficiency tests in every category — only 24 percent of eighth-grade students in the state are proficient in math, compared to 34 percent nationally. Despite these lackluster results, unions and politicians are in total agreement: nothing needs to change.
Teachers’ unions take credit for killing charter schools like politicians take credit for grain growing. Both happen every year across the country. The arrangement works for both parties. Unions get to pretend to be powerful, even as they face declining enrollment in the wake of the Janus Supreme Court decision, defeats in school board races across the country and parents hungry for a change. While their threats are toothless, they can’t let dues-paying members know that — that’s why they strike against bills that were never going to pass.
For their part, politicians love any opportunity to blame someone for their failures. They’re always happy to kill innovative education programs and point the finger at organized labor. The only party that loses out on this deal is the students.
Teachers’ unions claim to put students first, but these strikes belie that claim.
First, they’re striking against the mere possibility of charter schools, even though having that option generally boosts student achievement. As research compiled by the Center for Education Reform shows, attending a charter school can boost math proficiency by 30 points compared to public school. And charter students in Oakland, for instance, perform dramatically better and have cohort graduation rates of 72 percent, compared to 50 percent in public schools.
Second, teacher strikes have a proven significant negative impact on the education of our children. It’s not exactly rocket science: When students are forced to miss school, they fall behind.
Anyone who supports freedom and opportunity in education should keep the lessons of West Virginia in mind and pay close attention to the protests in South Carolina (which has no teachers union). As advocates push districts to encourage innovative charter schools, opportunity and all-around better education, some entrenched interests are pushing back — both in union halls and state capitols nationwide.
But advocates and parents should remember who holds the real power and hold their elected officials to account. If politicians can’t save education for their constituents, maybe they don’t deserve their votes.
Jeanne Allen is the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.