Why the Strongsville Strike Matters for Education
By Mustang Sally
In the last few weeks, something big has been happening in our small town. The Strongsville Education Association, our local teacher’s union, has been on strike since Monday, March 4th. As an alumna of this district, the last two weeks have taught me some important things about our town, the national conversation about education and the future of unions and middle class jobs.
The current national debate about teacher pay and public unions is built on two notions that are now “common wisdom.”
- Teachers (and public employees) are not doing a good enough job and would not be able to compete in the private sector. Challenging or breaking their unions is important to improving the quality of the services provided.
- Teachers are overpaid and their salaries and benefits are unsustainable for local and state governments
The Strongsville teachers are the first teachers to strike in the state of Ohio in more than five years. More importantly, the two central ideas of the anti-union movement are demonstrably false in the case of our town. The hostility to these teachers’ efforts at collective bargaining makes plain the big lie behind efforts in our state and across the nation to reduce the power of the last remaining voice for an important group of middle class jobs.
Let’s start with the first “fact” – that teachers are doing a bad job. As a proud graduate with younger siblings in the district, I’m well acquainted with the teachers of our system. My parents struggled to make ends meet in order to move to Strongsville years ago for one reason alone – the reputation of its teachers and schools. Strongsville has been labeled “Excellent with Distinction” for many years, and it did not disappoint. The award-winning Spanish language program, the robust music and arts education, and the dedicated teachers prepared me to compete with the best-educated kids in the nation at a private university. My younger brother was inspired by his math teachers and is now finishing his first year teaching in a nearby district.
The teachers in Strongsville don’t just care about the brightest and easiest students to teach. While I am grateful for the AP and honors classes available, the teachers who stand out most in my mind are those who have supported my family when we needed extra help: the pre-kindergarten teacher who identified my youngest brother’s vision problems when he was only four years old; the team of dedicated professionals who have helped a close friend growing up with severe mental illness. The impact of these teachers can be stated far more eloquently by their students, through a Facebook group called 385 letters for 385 teachers.
Now, in the vitriolic response from many of my neighbors and some of my friends, I have seen that decades of attacking teachers have taken their toll. It seems that our town either does not think these achievements matter or that the teachers have been nothing but babysitters along for the ride. Our district, while claiming it is strapped for cash, has hired a team of replacements from the strikebreaking company Huffmasters (best known for breaking nurses strikes, but coming soon to a schoolyard near you) at what must be astronomical expense to replace the dedicated professionals who have been working in our community for years.
It has been shocking to see how quickly some parents and local businesses have turned on the “greedy” teachers (almost invariably making less money than the parents in question). I shake my head and realize – they don’t know how good we have it. Strongsville is one of the best districts in the state, but my neighbors have an abundance of riches – they must believe that it is this way everywhere! For the sake of our kids, I hope it doesn’t take losing our best teachers and shortchanging the future to recognize what we have.
This brings us to the second big lie: That this is only about money and whether cities or towns can “afford” what teachers deserve. Strongsville is one of the wealthiest cities in the Northeast Ohio area. With about 45,000 residents, it outperforms the state of Ohio on every metric. The median household income (census.gov) is $77,087 (compared with a state median of $48,071). The median home value is more than $200,000 – compared with $135,000 for the state. Moreover, even while the recession devastated communities like Elyria, Akron, and Cleveland, there were more jobs in Strongsville at the end of 2011 than in 2004.
In other cities where I’ve lived, when there is opposition to a school funding measure, the citizens are often truly strapped for cash. People will tell you directly that they can’t afford it, even if they want to invest more money in the education system. I’ve never even heard that argument made over the course of this strike. Instead, investment bankers, pharmaceutical representatives, and other highly paid white-collar professionals are saying that they don’t want to and shouldn’t have to. The district is essentially doing the same- while teachers agreed to a pay freeze for the past five years (during which time the academic outcomes remained excellent), our Board president retained lawyers to the tune of more than a million dollars, seemingly for their expertise in breaking strikes. This is particularly unusual since the first lawyer was hired before the contract negotiations started – after teachers had agreed to another pay freeze and to increasing their health contribution.
To focus only on the amount of teacher salaries misses the point. As our citizenry yells on comment boards about how the teachers should stop complaining, we seem to have decided that the entire notion of negotiated contracts is quaint. Teachers should never receive a raise, ever – no matter how well they teach, no matter how much money their district has. In fact, we seem to think that the overall wages should go down. This is tragically sad. Educators are an important part of the middle class in this country. Some of our teachers have Ph.D. degrees in fields like math and science, and they could earn a good deal more in the private sector. To pay them enough to live in our town seems like an easy decision – teachers make good neighbors, and are invested in the schools as well as the community.
The teachers in Strongsville are better paid than their counterparts in Cleveland – the average teacher salary in Strongsville is about $64,000. For some of the most educated professionals in our town (many have Masters or Doctoral degrees in Education or their subject area), this is not astronomical. And part of why the average is much greater than the starting salary (around $50,000) is that many of these excellent teachers have been in our schools for years, if not decades. Research has shown the high cost of teacher turnover, and the importance of retaining the best educators. In our town, we seem to have decided that literally anyone (per Huffmasters) can be in front of the classroom, with the same results.
So if this isn’t about teacher performance, and it isn’t about the district not having money, what is it about?
There is a powerfully funded, politically savvy attempt to destroy public unions across this country. Supported by shadowy billionaires like the Koch brothers, Governor Kasich (in the footsteps of his soulmate, Governor Walker) jammed extremely unpopular legislation through our state to destroy the collective bargaining power of teachers, firefighters, and police officers. SB5 was overturned 60%-40% in a referendum, but the anti-union stance lives on. Scott Walker, John Kasich, and our own Board President, David Frazee – they are making a name for themselves in right-wing politics on the livelihoods of hard working men and women who have made our schools some of the finest in the state. With the “take-it-or-leave-it” approach adopted by the Board of Education, the teachers’ right to negotiate a contract is under attack in Strongsville just as much as it was in Madison or Columbus.
Our kids are being put last by the Board. They have shown their disdain for the entire profession of teaching (and the students of our town) by placing unqualified substitutes in the place of the excellent educators demanding basic respect and fair treatment for their work. One frightening example of this disregard is the treatment of IEP (Individualized Education Plan) modifications during the Ohio Graduation Tests – completed this week in spite of the teacher strike. There is no way that a building full of underpaid replacements can ensure that the requirements of a legally binding IEP are fulfilled. They tell us it is business as usual, but saying something doesn’t make it true.
I’m writing to warn parents and teachers across the state and country. If they can do it in Strongsville, which has money and excellent teachers, they can do it anywhere. The only thing standing between our schools and a corporate agenda that cares not one bit about our communities is us. They have a fancy PR firm and many lawyers. We have only our voices and our experiences. But we believe that when you’re speaking truth to power, the most powerful weapon is just that – the truth.
“Mustang Sally” is a graduate of Strongsville High School and a strong supporter of public education.