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DICKERSON: Teachers and students, unhappy and fired-up

• May 4, 2018 at 2:00 PM

What happens when America's 800,000 high school teachers and the 17 million teenagers they teach all get angry at the same time?

I'm not sure, either. But we are about to find out, and the consequences for those running in Michigan's August primary and November general election could be severe.

It's too early to predict just how significant a role the convergence of students enraged by a plague of school shootings and teachers enraged by that and a lot of other things will play in the election cycle that culminates in November's midterm congressional contests.

But the non-electoral evidence of that anger is manifest. Teachers in Arizona are planning their first-ever statewide walkout next Thursday to demand that state lawmakers there increase funding for K-12 schools, a prerequisite for the salary increases educators are demanding in school districts across the state.

If the strike takes place as scheduled, Arizona's would be fifth in a wave of red-state teacher walkouts that began in West Virginia two months ago and has since spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Colorado.

In an era where strikes rarely result in definitive victories for either side, teachers have been unusually successful both in extracting both significant wage increases and galvanizing public sympathy.

In Kentucky, Republican lawmakers voted to override their governor's veto of a budget that included a $480 million tax increase to support record spending on public education. That override came after similar victories in Oklahoma, where another Republican governor signed legislation giving teachers an average raise of $6,000, and West Virginia, where teachers who staged a nine-day walkout won a 5 percent pay hike.

All four states are right-to-work states where unions have limited collective bargaining rights and teachers who participate in a walkout risk dismissal and even loss of their teaching credentials. Michigan became a right-to-work state in 2013 after Gov. Rick Snyder, then halfway into his first term, signed legislation that barred unions from requiring employees to join a union or pay union dues.

Although students tend to be sympathetic to the demands of their underpaid teachers, the more significant impetus for high school demonstrations like the ones that swept Michigan last Friday was the shooting that resulted in 17 deaths at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High Schoolin Parkland, Florida.

Sanovia Weje, 17-year-old president of Oak Park High School's National Honor Society, says she was more focused on academics than politics until the Parkland massacre. Now and she classmates at the Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts — a consortium for students from Berkley, Clawson, Ferndale, Lamphere, Madison and Oak Park high schools — are making plans to sponsor a voter registration drive. Their ultimate objective is to rally support for legislative candidates who champion stronger gun control measures.

Like thousands of other students across the state, Weje and her classmates marked Friday's 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre by taking part in a ceremony that was partly a student-led demonstration and partly a sanctioned memorial service for victims of the 1999 shootings.

Meanwhile, the Survivors Empowered Action Fund, a nonprofit representing survivors of mass shootings and families of mass shooting victims, marked the Columbine anniversary by launching a national ad campaign targeting lawmakers who have accepted contributions from the National Rifle Association.

Teachers' grievances with the Republican politicians who have controlled most state legislatures since the pivotal reapportionment of 2011 are older and deeper than those of the teenagers they teach, most of whom have come to political consciousness since the 2016 presidential election. Long before Donald Trump and Parkland, teachers were chafing at GOP efforts to promote for-profit charter schools and finance tax cuts with funding siphoned from public education.

But there is considerable overlap between the two groups' complaints and political objectives.

Students have marched along striking teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, and teachers share their students' impatience with the GOP's resistance to gun control measures most voters back. Teacher unions have been pushed back especially hard against the Trump administration's suggestions that more teachers carry firearms in the classroom to discourage would-be shooters.

In Michigan, teachers have turned out in disproportionate numbers for everything from the women's marches and Indivisible rallies that sprung up after Trump's inauguration to demonstrations demanding tougher gun control and other school safety measures.

"We've seen an outpouring of political activism since 2016 unlike anything that preceded it," said Doug Pratt, a longtime spokesman for Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

A week ago, when Dana Nessel surprised most Democrats by winning her party's endorsement for the state attorney general's race, the MEA was one of only a handful of unions that endorsed Nessel over former U.S. Attorney Pat Miles, who was backed by the UAW and the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Pratt says it would be an exaggeration to credit his union for Nessel's upset victory, but added that the 7,000 Democrats who turned out for last week's convention included "a lot of teachers I'd never seen at a political event before."

The first real acid test of this political partnership will occur this August, when voters will pick the major parties' nominees for state and congressional office. Michigan primaries have historically sparked scant voter interest, attracting only about one in every five eligible voters.

That could change this summer, especially if teachers and students sustain the political energy they've conjured in the current school year.

This column was published in the Detroit Free Press on April 22. You may contact Brian Dickerson at [email protected]

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