Tennessee teachers have taken a pummeling over the years.
They’re grossly underpaid and their professional autonomy has been stripped away. Their students are over-tested and their schools underfunded.
But what has been the collective response?
To lie low.
Keep their heads down.
This is especially true of the leadership in their union, the Tennessee Education Association. They’ve pursued a strategy of “it’s better to be at the table than on the menu.”
This strategy emphasizes access over confrontation. They hope that small incremental change will be possible through a combination of lobbying and writing checks to political campaigns. And since the union isn’t being adversarial, isn’t pushing too hard or too fast, they hope they won’t be a target for political retribution.
Those hopes have been misplaced.
Across the state, conditions in schools have only gotten worse. Tennessee consistently ranks near the bottom of the country in per-pupil spending. Experienced and qualified teachers are leaving the profession in droves.
Now, newly elected Governor Bill Lee is taking direct aim at public education. He just announced a state budget that doubles funding for charter schools and is pushing lawmakers to approve $25 million for vouchers. Governor Lee’s disastrous privatization agenda will further drain resources from schools that are already struggling to get by.
The lesson here is that we can’t incrementally lobby our way out of the hole we are in.
Lying low doesn’t work, but there is another way.
All across the country, teachers are supercharging the routine of lobbying and elections with a far more powerful tool: they are going out on strike.
Teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kentucky have used collective action to transform the political landscape. They’ve decimated charter and voucher legislation, stopped further spending cuts, and pushed policies that actually benefit student outcomes: lower class sizes, more nurses and counselors, an end to toxic testing, and paying teachers adequately so school systems can retain them for more than a few years.
There is clear tangible evidence that strikes work. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that “protests by teachers and others last year helped lead to substantial increases in school funding in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.”
It didn’t matter that striking is illegal in many of these states or that the state government is dominated by anti-union Republicans.
When teachers found the courage to strike they found out that the community—and often even their boss—had their back
With so many school districts struggling to make ends meet, striking teachers found that their demands for increased state funding had the support of their local administrators. Because superintendents closed their schools during the nine-day West Virginia strike, teachers didn’t lose pay and the strike rolled on.
Parents know that issues like class size and funding matter. It’s common sense. Would you rather your child be in a classroom with twenty other students or forty? Do you want your child to be taught by a capable, qualified professional or to be endlessly drilled in preparation for a high-stakes test?
Unsurprisingly, teachers everywhere have received an outpouring of support from parents and community members when they hit the picket lines.
Teachers living with anemic unions and deteriorating conditions in their schools have created their own Facebook groups to communicate with each other and coordinate actions across school sites. Examples include West Virginia Public Employees United, KY 120 United, and Arizona Educators United.
Now there is TN Teachers United.
“This group is for any public school educator who is tired of their students’ needs being put last and is tired of their voices being ignored,” said Lauren Sorensen, a second grade teacher at Halls Elementary School in Knox County and a longtime leader in her local union. “If you are ready to organize and act, then join us.”
The group was formed following a video call organized by Labor Notes between Tennessee teacher activists and two of the rank-and-file organizers of the statewide walkouts in Arizona and West Virginia (see video below).
Tennessee teachers face the same issues and challenges as teachers in West Virginia and Arizona—and they are just as resourceful.
They just have to ask themselves: are they going to keep lying low or are they going to start fighting back?
Chris Brooks is a former organizer with the Tennessee Education Association and currently works as an organizer and staff writer for Labor Notes.