For the first time in 47 years, teachers and support staff in Columbus—Ohio’s largest school district—went on strike Monday to demand better working and learning conditions, exemplifying mounting discontent over the sustained and intensifying attacks on public education that have led to increasingly understaffed and ill-equipped classrooms.
The Columbus Education Association (CEA) announced Sunday night that more than 94% of its nearly 4,500 members had voted to reject the last offer from Columbus City Schools, bringing about the union’s first work stoppage since 1975.
“It is with a full understanding of the sacrifices that students, parents, and teachers will make together to win the schools Columbus students deserve that CEA members overwhelmingly rejected the board’s last, best, and final offer tonight and intend to strike,” CEA spokesperson Regina Fuentes said at the time.
With no negotiations currently scheduled between the two sides, the district’s 47,000-plus students are poised to start the school year online Wednesday.
Their teachers, librarians, counselors, and other staff, meanwhile, plan to keep picketing for improved learning environments and expanded opportunities for art, music, and physical education—something they began to do Monday morning at school buildings across the city.
National Education Association (NEA) vice president Princess Moss joined a picket line, walking alongside others calling for “schools our students deserve.”
“We will continue fighting until we have safe, properly maintained, and fully resourced schools in every neighborhood,” Fuentes said at a Monday news conference, suggesting the possibility of a long fight similar to the one that occurred last year in Minneapolis.
With no quick resolution in sight, “free school lunches, and breakfasts for the next day, will be distributed in grab-and-go containers each school day at 25 locations,” The Columbus Dispatch reported.
The CEA’s notice of intent to strike cited “disagreement over learning conditions such as smaller class sizes, full-time art, music, and P.E. teachers at the elementary level, and functional heating and air-conditioning in classrooms, as well as adequate planning time, a cap on the number of class periods during the school day, outsourcing positions to private-for-profit corporations from outside the community, and recruiting and retaining the best educators for Columbus students.”
That notice was filed on August 11. Roughly two weeks earlier, the CEA said in a statement, “the school board walked away from the bargaining table.”
CEA member Courtney Johnson, a 21-year veteran of Columbus City Schools, told CNN on Tuesday that improved pay is not the union’s focus.
“This strike is about our students,” said Johnson. “Our Columbus City School students deserve a commitment to modern schools with properly working heating and air-conditioning, and smaller class sizes, and art, music, and P.E.”
According to CNN, “The school board wants to ask voters for more money. The union wants the board to use federal money.”
Columbus is home to the nation’s first strike in a large K-12 district this school year, but educators, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers in other cities are also agitating, with more potential labor actions looming on the horizon.
A county commissioner in North Carolina recently called for a statewide teacher walkout, juxtaposing the state’s budget surplus with low pay and a huge teacher shortfall.
Last week, food service workers in Pittsburgh’s Woodland Hills School District voted to authorize a strike. If their demand for a living wage is not met—negotiations were scheduled to begin Tuesday—a work stoppage is imminent.
Over the weekend, the School District of Philadelphia’s maintenance, custodial, and transportation employees voted to authorize a strike unless the school board agrees to a new contract that includes higher wages and better training before the current pact expires on August 31.
Not far away in York County, Pennsylvania, meanwhile, teachers recently reached a tentative agreement with the school board on a new contract just days after threatening to strike.
“Two-and-a-half years of pandemic-throttled schooling and a recent escalation of culture wars around what teachers can say on topics such as U.S. history, racism, and LGBTQ rights have left districts across the country grappling with burned-out educators and catastrophic teacher shortages,” The Washington Post reported Monday.
Although pay is not a driving force in the Columbus strike, new research by the Economic Policy Institute shows that the “teacher pay penalty”—or the difference between how much teachers make compared with their nonteacher college-educated counterparts—reached a new high in 2021.
As Common Dreams reported earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and some of the other right-wing officials who have been leading the GOP’s assault on the dignity and autonomy of teachers and librarians with censorship laws and book bans are scrambling to address the staffing crisis they helped exacerbate by lowering professional standards.
While Republican attacks on public education have intensified in recent months, Jack Schneider, an associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and journalist Jennifer Berkshire argue that the roots of current problems are bipartisan and have a long history.
“It’s not hard to see why teachers are in short supply,” Schneider and Berkshire, co-authors of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, wrote in an opinion piece published Sunday by The Hill.
“Yet as dire as the present moment may seem for the nation’s teachers,” it began prior to 2020, the pair wrote. “Long before the GOP embarked on its modern-day witch hunt for ‘woke’ teachers, scapegoating teachers for educational inequities was a bipartisan endeavor—one led by Democrats.”
With educators leaving the profession in droves, Schneider and Berkshire added, “we’re reaping what was sown” by decades of attacks on public schools by both major parties.
To stay in the classroom, NEA president Becky Pringle said earlier this month, teachers need “professional respect.”
“For them that is three things,” she said. “Professional authority to make teaching and learning decisions for their students. Professional rights to have the conditions and resources to do the jobs they love. And professional pay that reflects the importance of the work they do.”
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