Almost exactly one year ago today, I sat in a room with a bunch of pissed-off teachers in Mingo County, West Virginia. They were fed up with earning some of the lowest pay in the country, and they were disgusted with how promise after promise had been broken on their health care coverage. They were tired of digging into their own pockets for the supplies they needed, let alone the granola bars, warm jackets, and pairs of shoes that they kept on hand. But more than anything, they were ready to call bullshit. Bullshit on the idea that there was no money for public education, when there was always money when the big-business lobbyists came around looking for tax cuts. Bullshit on the politicians who claimed to care about the future for our kids, when they short-changed them every step of the way. They walked out, and soon their local movement became a state-wide movement that became a national movement. I’ll never forget the day we saw a Kentucky teacher post a picture of a rally sign that read: “Don’t make us go West Virginia on you!”
On Tuesday, I found myself with a whole lot more pissed-off teachers, this time in Los Angeles, California. After trying to negotiate a contract for more than a year, LA teachers have decided to go West Virginia. They decided to stand shoulder to shoulder, hold the line, and shut it down. Because, let’s face it, whether you are the richest county in America or the poorest county, you can bet that your public schools are under siege. Politicians suck the funding out and then blame the teachers for not getting results on their cookie-cutter standardized tests. The wealthy leave or send their kids to private schools. The carcass of the neighborhood school is left for dead at best and actively dismantled at worst.
But there’s a reason why two places as different as Mingo and Los Angeles — not to mention Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, and Colorado — can be part of the same movement. It’s because the attack on public schools is part of a larger national attack on working people. Teachers are on the front lines of this war, and they understand perfectly well what’s at stake. Yes, they are fighting for their own ability to practice their profession without having to also drive an Uber on the side, but what they are really fighting for is the fate of the middle class. The public education system is the bedrock of the American middle class, the great equalizer. Teachers are risking their own livelihoods to try to keep the middle class alive in this country, and we should all be taking up arms.
Think about it. Our schools are the largest investment we make in our children. When the children of the working-class citizen are sent to schools that are overcrowded, unsafe, and falling down, that is a statement of our values, a statement of our priorities. We are saying to the poor, working, and middle classes that we do not think their kids are worth the trouble; they aren’t worth the investment. We’d rather just give another tax cut to Amazon so they can invest in robots, thank you very much. In West Virginia, we watched as there was always money for another tax cut to big energy, but never any to try to pull our schools up from near the worst in the nation. After I retired from the military, I became a teacher at Chapmanville High School and saw firsthand how our kids were getting screwed. You tell me how the American dream is going to be possible for a kid who was taught math by the assistant to the assistant wrestling coach. What a joke. In Los Angeles, the wealthy have already pulled their kids out of the public schools, where 40-plus kids pile into classrooms, and teachers are left to handle everything from broken arms to mental health issues. Charter schools have siphoned millions away from neighborhood schools, and the district absurdly claims that there’s no money for improvements while sitting on a nearly $2 billion surplus.
In Mingo County, the war on the working class is personal. Coal baron Don Blankenship murdered 29 miners through negligence because safety would have hurt his bottom line. He poisoned the water of his own town and built a private water line to his hilltop mansion, but didn’t bother to tell his neighbors that they were drinking coal slurry. Of course, all the local politicians looked the other way. This is cartoonishly evil behavior, and yet the slow poisoning of the working class is playing out in every community in this nation. They are poisoned by the big corporations that treat them as disposable and bust their unions. They are poisoned by politicians who are looking out for their campaign accounts and that big paycheck they will get as a lobbyist when they finish “serving.” They are poisoned by the contempt of those who believe that you are only worthy of a life of dignity if you live in the right place, look a certain way, have a certain size bank account, and can score high enough on your math SATs.
The teachers in West Virginia, LA, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, and more are saying something radical with their actions. They are saying that every single child of this nation is worthy. The poor kids. The immigrant kids. The special needs kids. The holler kids. They all deserve a safe place, with dedicated professionals. A place to thrive. A place to explore. A place to be treated as the human beings they are, rather than a problem to be dealt with or another faceless name on an overstuffed roster.
Underfunding, privatizing, demonizing teachers, these are all tactics used to destroy a public education system that helped to build the middle class. I often say that the elites of this nation better take care, because if we get to a place in this country where there’s only the dirt poor and the filthy rich, the dirt poor will eat the filthy rich. The teachers strikes are a warning shot.
Don’t make us go West Virginia on you.