Guest Host: Marc Fisher

Picketing Milwaukee public schools teachers and their supporters, April 2018

Picketing Milwaukee public schools teachers and their supporters, April 2018

In West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona, teachers have gone on strike, protesting poor school conditions. A new law could allow Virginia educators, whose salaries have dipped over the past decade, to do the same.

We get a roundup of what’s at stake for Virginia schools this session.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock


  • Jenny Abamu Education Reporter, WAMU 88.5 @JennyAbamu
  • Lee Carter Member, Virginia House of Delegates (Dist. 50-Democratic Socialist)


  • 12:00:02

    MARC FISHERYou're tuned to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo. Later this hour, are e-cigarettes hooking a new generation of Americans on nicotine? We'll explore the growing concerns about vaping among young people.

  • 12:00:17

    MARC FISHERBut first, teachers have gone on strike in the past couple of years in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona protesting poor school conditions and sorely lagging pay scales. Now a proposed law in Virginia could clear a pathway for educators in the commonwealth to consider similar activism. And joining us to discuss this are Jenny Abamu. She is WAMU's Education Reporter. Welcome.

  • 12:00:41

    JENNY ABAMUThank you for having me.

  • 12:00:42

    FISHERAnd Lee Carter is a democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He's representing District 50 in the Manassas area. He's joining us by phone. Good day to you.

  • 12:00:52

    LEE CARTERThank you so much for having me on.

  • 12:00:54

    FISHERWell, Jenny Abamu, what is going on around the country with teachers taking to the streets, going on strike in a number of states in some cases, in states where you might not expect, in the Midwest, in the plain states? Why this wave of activism and what do the teachers want?

  • 12:01:13

    ABAMUThose are a lot of questions. Well, you know, you touch on a little bit of this before. Last year there were teacher protests in several states, Arizona, Oklahoma, and, I mean, those protests did end relatively favorably for those teachers. They did get increased funding for, you know, they're salaries and also some of the school districts. And now, as second half of the school year resumes, so are teacher protests. And in Los Angeles school districts are basically locked in a fierce negotiation to avoid a strike that's scheduled for Thursday.

  • 12:01:45

    ABAMUAnd then at the same time educators here in Virginia announced that they're planning a protest in Richmond later this month. They did not want to call it a strike. They said that this is not a strike. They emphasized that. But they did say that they are protesting against, you know, the lack of funding in classrooms. And they emphasize that this goes way beyond wages. This is about having enough supplies for their kids, having extra support staff that they need in their schools and also just facility costs. For example, for the school building, soap in the bathrooms, things like that.

  • 12:02:20

    FISHERAnd if teachers in Virginia are not actually unionized -- they have educational associations, but they are not unionized. So can they actually strike?

  • 12:02:32

    ABAMUWell, the interesting thing is technically, they can't. At least the law as it's written right now, they're not allowed to strike. If they did strike, they would be -- they could face disciplinary action like being fired, things like that. But there are -- in other places where teachers weren't allowed to strike, they did strike. And they weren't fired and I think for multiple reasons that's true, one being the fact that there's a national shortage of teachers for example.

  • 12:02:59

    ABAMUThe Virginia Department of Education reported about 1,000 unfilled positions in 2017 -- during the 2017-2018 school year. And then, of course, the second reason is with a lot of community support from parents and students firing teachers for demanding better classroom funding doesn't always play well in the court of public opinion, so.

  • 12:03:20

    FISHERLet's bring in Delegate Lee Carter. Delegate, you apparently want to change the law in Virginia soon to make strikes possible. Why do you want to do that?

  • 12:03:30

    CARTERYeah, that's absolutely correct. You know, we saw what happened in neighboring states. We saw particularly in West Virginia how, you know, not only were teachers involved in the strike, but parents were incredibly supportive of it too. And that's because a teacher strike is really a weapon of last resort. It is our last line of defense against the crisis of crumbling schools.

  • 12:03:54

    CARTERAnd, you know, the teachers in West Virginia and Kentucky and Oklahoma, they showed the courage to stand up and blow the whistle and say, "We have a problem and it's not being taken seriously right now and we cannot in good conscious allow this to function as is." And the way Virginia law is currently written, you know, not only can they be fired, they must be fired according to Virginia law. The code says that they're deemed to have resigned their position and they're ineligible from ever being a public employee again. And we need to be thanking them for their courage not punishing them.

  • 12:04:31

    FISHERDelegate, you propose this legislation saying that when things get bad enough, that teachers resort to a strike and they obviously shouldn't be penalized for speaking up. But how do you define bad enough? What is the situation in Virginia classrooms now that you think would drive teachers to take this extraordinary step?

  • 12:04:49

    CARTERWell, it varies wildly from locality to locality. You know, we've got wildly different conditions even between neighboring localities. You know, teacher pay between Prince William and Fairfax vary greatly. But there's also a huge disparity in conditions in our schools between northern Virginia and southwestern Virginia and the eastern shore.

  • 12:05:08

    CARTERYou know, we've got schools in southwestern Virginia in particular that have roof leaks that have been going on for years. You know, we've got teachers that are having to kick in 10 percent of their salary to buy supplies for their students. It's unconscionable the way we let the least capable of our school districts continue to just keep going without any attention from the state government.

  • 12:05:39

    FISHERNow, of course, Democrats made great strides in this last election and are now almost even with Republicans in the House of Delegates, but remain in the minority in both houses of the general assembly. So given the opposition to unions and to strikes in Virginia historically, do you have any reason to believe that you're bill has a chance of passing?

  • 12:06:02

    CARTERWell, you know, I don't want to speculate on what a floor vote would come to. But, you know, we saw what happened in neighboring states. People rallied around teachers, because people instinctively know that the working conditions for our teachers are the same conditions that our children are learning in. So when teachers are saying it's bad enough that it can't continue to function, it really is bad enough that it can't continue to function.

  • 12:06:26

    CARTERI mean, that's why the West Virginia teachers after they went on strike, they were just named one of those 50 most influential groups by Fortune Magazine. It's not exactly a left wing outlet. People just know that teachers understand the conditions in our classrooms way better than anyone else does. And I think that taking a stand against teachers' ability to blow the whistle is really not going to be a tenable position for my fellow legislators.

  • 12:06:53

    ABAMUJust to jump in on that question, Marc. There have been other bills surrounding issues of collective bargaining in the past. In 2016, some Virginia lawmakers even tried to change the state constitution to have the words "right to work" in it. And that referendum would have prohibited employers from requiring union fees, etcetera, but that measure failed to get enough votes.

  • 12:07:15

    ABAMUBut generally these bills of -- that surround collective bargaining, things like that, Republicans have historically voted against these powers and these rights. And so -- and they do control both the House and the Senate, though, by slim margins. So that can kind of give you an idea of the chances of it passing.

  • 12:07:33

    FISHEROkay. Let's hear from Tom in southern Maryland. Tom, you're on the air.

  • 12:07:37

    TOMHey, how's it going? So I'm a former teacher. There's always a talk about money. But I think a lot of people -- this teacher shortage, it kind of comes down to are people able to enjoy the job that they do? Is discipline being handled properly? Are administrators empowered to take care of situations so that teachers can do their jobs. Because when I was teaching the money was never the issue. It was, you know, just getting through the day feeling like I accomplished something at the end of the day.

  • 12:08:10


  • 12:08:11

    TOM (CALLER0So that's just what I wanted to comment on.

  • 12:08:15

    FISHERGood. Let's hear from Delegate Lee Carter. I mean, do you -- in your discussions with teachers, is it the pay or is it those conditions in the classroom that are driving them to feel that they need to take an activist step? We're seeing in Los Angeles where those teachers are now talking about striking, it's not so much about pay as that class size and staffing of classes that seem to be the main drivers.

  • 12:08:39

    CARTERYeah, it's not either or. It's all of the above. You know, all of these problems that we have in our schools from crumbling infrastructure to large class sizes to overwhelmingly long hours for teachers to low pay to teachers feeling like they're not valued in the classroom. That's one that I hear the most frequently. All of it is a symptom of state government that treats teachers like something they can take advantage of, like we don't need to pay attention to the needs of teachers. Schools will somehow sort themselves out. And historically that's just not been true.

  • 12:09:15

    FISHERAnd, Jenny Abamu, what's your sense of the connection between the plate of teachers and the parents and other members of the public and their attitude toward teachers and schools? Are they -- do you sense that there's great sympathy for the teachers conditions or people want them to just shut up and do their jobs?

  • 12:09:34

    ABAMUI think from parents and community members that I've spoken to and teachers that I've interviewed, it's very hard for a parent not to feel sympathetic for what's happening in the classroom, especially when their kids are there, right? If teachers are saying, "Say we don't have supplies. We don't have soap in the bathroom for your kids to wash their hands." You know, little things like that really really touch a nerve in the entire community.

  • 12:09:58

    ABAMUAnd so people are concerned. They want a good neighborhood school. And so they -- whenever something is happening and teachers are saying this is happening in their communities, yes. They see that happening to their kids and they are very concerned about that. And they are very sympathetic to those issues.

  • 12:10:16

    FISHERAnd Lee Carter, taking a broader look at what's coming up in this legislative session in Richmond, what else on the education agenda is driving you and what actual changes do you think the legislature can make in the education front this session?

  • 12:10:33

    CARTERYeah, a lot has been made over the governor's proposal for a five percent raise for teachers this year. That five percent raise would be contingent on a local match. So the state would pay two and a half percent and the localities would have to pay two and a half percent, which does put some of our poor localities in a really untenable position.

  • 12:10:51

    CARTERSo, you know, I'm looking for ways to get that five percent raise entirely on state dollars. So the localities aren't feeling that pinch. But there are some folks -- some of my colleagues who are maybe more skeptical of the idea of the five percent raise entirely. So, you know, these legislative sessions they're very unpredictable. You never know when the right person will change their mind at the right time. You never know how these things are going to go. We're going to see how that fight plays out over the next six weeks or so.

  • 12:11:23

    FISHEROkay. And Jenny Abamu, what are you looking forward to in this Richmond session? Anything that you think will really make a difference for teachers?

  • 12:11:31

    ABAMUI think the raises are an interesting place to start looking at, because, I mean, over the last 10 years, you can kind of see that Virginia teacher salaries in particular have really not kept up with the cost of living. And even if you look at data from the National Center of Education Statics, if you look at data from the Virginia Department of Education, multiple times people will say that they are behind a national average.

  • 12:11:55

    ABAMUAnd in addition, they're also behind their neighbors in Maryland and D.C. And so I think that will be a big touch point. But I do also suspect that a lot of teachers will say that it's enough. Given the fact that, you know, in south Virginia you have salaries that average $32,000 a year and then it also -- it's a wide gap, right? And then in some place -- of course in northern Virginia up here you have some higher salaries. But even those people are worried about Amazon coming and that knocking off the -- and the high rents in the area and being able to keep up in that way. So I think that people are happy that people are talking about more funding. But they're still thinking that it's not going to be enough.

  • 12:12:33

    FISHERJenny Abamu is WAMU's Education Reporter. We are also joined by Delegate Lee Carter, a Democrat in Virginia's House of Delegates representing the Manassas area. Thanks for being with us. Coming up after a short break, are e-cigarettes hooking a new generation of Americans on nicotine? We'll look at the growing concerns about vaping among young people.

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