Teachers at Columbus City Schools strike outside Livingston Elementary School, August 22, 2022.
Washington CNN  — 

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In King County, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, teachers continue to strike.

The Kent School District and the Kent Education Association, the union representing the district’s teachers, have been trying to hash out an agreement since July, with teachers arguing that they’re underpaid and underappreciated.

“Students and education staff need a level of support we aren’t getting,” Kris Hill, an English teacher at Kentwood High School, told the CNN affiliate KIRO-TV. “Counselors, in particular, have been one of our biggest concerns. They have about 400 students each. I have 150.”

The Kent strike isn’t an isolated event. In recent weeks, teachers and other school district employees across the US have drawn attention to long-simmering issues that often sit atop the fault lines of race, given the high proportion of students of color in struggling areas.

Teachers at Columbus City Schools, in Ohio, ratified an agreement on Sunday after a days-long strike over classroom conditions and teacher pay. (“98 DEGREES IS A BOY BAND NOT A CLASSROOM TEMPERATURE,” read the arch and apt sign held by a teacher on a picket line outside East High School.)

The School District of Philadelphia and a union representing around 2,000 employees – including bus drivers, mechanics, cleaners and engineers – reached a deal last week that averted a strike over pay and training programs that the union had authorized to start on Thursday.

The problems that teachers must deal with are legion.

“There’s the low pay, but that’s not the whole story,” Sari Beth Rosenberg, a history teacher at the High School for Environmental Studies, a New York City public high school, and the host of the PBS NewsHour Classroom Educator Zoom Series, told CNN. “There’s the lack of adequate classroom conditions. There’s the fear around safety and public health. And it’s all exacerbated by politicians in red states passing what I call educational gag orders that essentially make teachers choose between their profession and their paychecks.”

Further, students of color are disproportionately disadvantaged by many of the issues that teachers are shining a light on: sweltering buildings, unwieldy class sizes.

In Kent School District, students of color make up about 70% of enrollment, according to state data, meaning that Kent is one of the most diverse school districts in Washington. The figures for the School District of Philadelphia and Columbus City Schools hover around 90% and 80%, respectively.

Teachers are facing a perfect storm of challenges and indignities. But some states, such as New Mexico, where local leaders have ramped up teacher salaries and permitted retired teachers to work as substitutes, show that it’s possible to chart a different course – one that nourishes a better classroom environment for everyone.

How the problems afflicting some schools are a racial equality issue

It’s worth reiterating that most students in Kent School District, the School District of Philadelphia and Columbus City Schools are students of color, meaning that they bear the brunt of many of the issues that teachers and other employees are snapping into focus.

For instance, in Kent, teachers tend to start at the contracted maximum class size.

“Starting at their cap. So it makes a difference. Every extra student is less time I have to check in with you, to check in with the family,” Layla James, the vice president of the Kent Education Association and a former kindergarten teacher, told KIRO-TV.

Though there are currently no strikes in the Baltimore City Public School system, where students of color make up the majority of enrollment, some schools there began the academic year on Monday with abbreviated days due to intense heat and no air conditioning.

A Baltimore parent picks up her children at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School in May, when high temperatures also led to an early release.

There are other dimensions to the racial equality issue. While there’s no national teacher shortage, as many reports claim, teacher vacancies – driven partly by meager wages, classroom restrictions and unease about public disrespect – have been buffeting vulnerable communities, particularly communities of color, in rural areas and the Deep South for decades.

Rosenberg said that though public school – and school in general – can be a great equalizer, as the abolitionist and education reformer Horace Mann declared in 1848, it can also be a great divider.

“I think that people forget that, for many, teaching isn’t just a profession. It’s a dream job. And when someone has to make that difficult decision to leave their dream job, that’s another teacher who’s not going to be in the classroom for a young person who needs them,” she said.

“And when young people don’t have an adult in the classroom who’s passionate about this profession – who signed up for it, who went to school for it – vulnerable communities are often affected the most,” she added.

The choice of classroom material matters, too.

In a number of states, Republican lawmakers are passing legislation that prevents teachers from engaging honestly and rigorously with race, among other identity categories.

For instance, just last week, Summer Boismier, who was an English teacher at Norman High School, in Oklahoma, said that she resigned because of a state law restricting books in classrooms.

“The state doesn’t want you to have access to these texts, these texts that center LGBTQ+ perspectives, that center BIPOC perspectives, which I believe absolutely 1,000% deserve a place in our reading lists, in individual curricula, that should be centered and protected, because they have historically been erased,” Boismier told CNN.

Rosenberg echoed some of these sentiments.

She recalled speaking with a Florida teacher, a Black woman, who said that Republican Gov. Ron Desantis’ signing earlier this year of a bill targeting how race can be discussed in classrooms felt like an act of erasure.

“She said that she feels like they (state legislators) are trying to erase her. They’re not just saying to take some books off the shelf. They’re saying, ‘We want to erase your part of this story, of this history,’” Rosenberg said. “And that resonated because, really, who are they also trying to erase? All the other kids in the classrooms who don’t fit that White supremacist vision of the US.”

How to take a path of small steps forward

In important ways, New Mexico illuminates how states might meaningfully address at least some of the problems beleaguering school districts.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order in May that will trim by 25% the amount of administrative paperwork teachers must do.

“By eliminating unnecessary burdens, our education heroes can focus on doing what we do best: teaching New Mexico students,” Whitney Holland, the president of the New Mexico branch of the American Federation of Teachers, told the CNN affiliate KOAT-TV.

And in March, Grisham signed bills that will increase by an average of 20% the base salary levels for the state’s teachers, bolster teacher mentorship and make it easier for retired teachers to return to the classroom, among other things.

“This is an important step toward guaranteeing all our children get the high-quality education they deserve and goes a long way toward solving our teacher shortages and ensuring high-quality professionals in the classroom,” Democratic state Rep. Debra Sariñana said.

These moves are no panacea for the endless challenges that school districts and their employees and students are wrestling with. But they’re nothing to thumb one’s nose at, and could provide guidance to states seeking to stave off strikes and shortages.

“People like to demonize teachers, like to look at their complaints and say, ‘Oh, they just want to get paid more, and they have summers off.’ I think that it’s important for people to realize that many teachers have second or third jobs because their salaries don’t pay the bills,” Rosenberg said. “And that’s why lots of teachers feel like they have to comply with these despicable anti-history laws. Teaching is just one of two or three paychecks.”

Teachers and the young people they’re devoted to, Rosenberg added, deserve so much better.