Columbus Education Association (CEA) voted yesterday to go on strike. This after prolonged negotiations with the school board have consistently failed. The last time Columbus City Schools teachers went on strike was in 1975. It was so long ago they weren’t even called CCS then, and their logo was an apple. I was four. I remember many things from when I was four, but not the teacher strike, probably because I wouldn’t start school for another year. My mother worked at Eastmoor High School back then.
This strike though? I am exceedingly aware of.
School systems have always been a line of dominoes. Students aren’t learning what they should, so communities blame teachers. Teachers say they don’t have the resources or freedom to teach in productive and comprehensive ways, so they blame administrators and the board. Administrators blame the budget, the school board and state standards. The school board says they need time to implement changes, so they blame the community for not understanding their processes, and teachers for not being good enough regardless of conditions. Communities blame the city for not forcing the board to do what we think its job is. The city says it’s not their job to do that, but while we’re here, how about shouldering another tax abatement, removing millions of dollars in resources from the school equation? And by the way, teachers aren’t being trained like they used to before they even get certified, so we’re back at square one.
Dominoes. You drop the ball in one area and it affects the next, and so on, until you have a Spider-Man pointing meme. The problem is no one can agree on what the first domino is, and so the domino scenario also becomes a chicken/egg cycle of debate. And while those debates rage on, schools get progressively worse. The buildings still crumble, the students still don’t learn what they should, the grades keep dropping, the money keeps going wherever school money goes.
At some point, someone in the domino chain has to stop the falling. People have been saying for years that this bubble was going to burst. Schools have been falling apart for years. Photos of crumbling and dripping ceilings in classrooms, rodent infestations, and climate intemperate classrooms are everywhere right now. Educators are under siege from conservative politicians. So teachers are, in part, negotiating to have such conditions addressed in contractually binding language, with clear and enforceable deadlines, while the board is debating over what an adequate learning environment is while the car is moving, aka the status quo.
People sympathetic to the board suggest that some cadre of bad teachers are fomenting this moment to get more money and less responsibility. While I would never debate whether or not bad teachers exist, I find it reprehensible that anyone would attempt to build a case against the 4,500 people in CEA on such grounds (many of whom are also school nurses, librarians, counselors and other staff). Or that the union is demagogic. Or that parents and the community are incapable of understanding what’s happening in schools. We may not be at all of the tables, but as a city, we pay for and eat what’s on the menu. If we applied the same “bad apples” line to the school board itself I’d wager we’d have a different organization by the end of business today.
The board says that contrary to slavering pro-teacher media spin, it has, in fact, leaned into the type of concessions that CEA is asking for. For example, they will tell you that they’ve inserted smaller classroom sizes into their offers, and that all but three schools will soon have HVAC systems. The problem is that they have a very different idea than working teachers about what an acceptable concession is. As Malcolm X put it: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress.” If you offer the wrong size of classroom or number of work hours or poor installation of materials and a host of other contextual conditions to teaching, you’re not really making a productive offer. You’ve made an offer by definition, but not one worth brokering, and it’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
Understand that the problem isn’t money. Despite the fact that City Council hands out tax abatements like good Halloween candy, Columbus City Schools traditionally operated in 2021 with a budget of nearly $2 billion. The district has enough money to at least start creating the kind of schools we need. It may not have the will or the leadership or the plans it needs to do that work, but it has the means to begin the process. And if it needs more funding, it has proven that it knows how to ask for it (although I’d also suggest a firmer stance against tax abatements for starters). The problem isn’t budget. The problem is line items. That’s an issue with management and accountability, which every version of the school board in my lifetime has struggled with.
People pontificate all the time about how teachers should make more money until teachers actually ask for it. We do not qualify these statements because we understand that anyone who agrees to walk into a classroom is taking on monumental work. Teaching is a lot of work over lots of unaccounted for time, with lifelong consequences in the lives of their students. Here in Columbus, we are faced with a moment in which teachers have decided that while money is important, so are all of the other things that everyone agrees needs to be fixed but no one ever fixes. And yes, that means it will cost me as a taxpayer more. I’m willing to pay that tax to teachers. I remain perennially on the fence about how the school board allocates funds otherwise.
I could never see myself coming down against teachers collectively. I owe them too much. We all do. And when 4,500 teachers and staff en masse say they’re fighting for students, I believe them. I see that work all of the time in schools when I’m invited to come speak and amongst the powerfully talented teachers that I know. When a 7-person school board with mixed outcomes – at best – says it, I need way more evidence than they traditionally provide.
I do not believe the school board doesn’t care about students or good schools. Demonizing them on that level is pointless unless proven otherwise. What I will say is that there is a breach in priority, interpretation and action. What the board sees as the logical steps to address the problems aren’t what teachers and communities are asking for. There are probably a dozen viable reasons why that’s true. I’m not here to dump on the school board personally; I don’t know those people. I know students. I know teachers. I know parents. The school board is charged with certain goals and those goals are not being met to anyone’s satisfaction. The fact that they have rarely if ever been met is not a defense or an excuse. That this version of the board is catching the business end of the teachers’ union just means that the bubble has finally burst. Incrementalism will no longer stand. Substantial change must become a reality on one side or the other. Something has to give now.
Ultimately the school board is saying and otherwise implying that, yes, schools are not what they should be, but the teachers union is not playing fair; that (essentially) teachers want the right things but they’re asking the wrong way. I say the teachers have decided that the dominoes have to stop falling somewhere, so why not here? Why not now? My money has always been on teachers. I couldn’t imagine ever coming down against teachers as a group. Every teacher I have ever known has labored under some form of unfair working conditions. What will it take to change the conditions of our schools, to give teachers and students the best foundation to stand a chance at raising the bar in public schools?
Hopefully, we’re about to find out.