ONLY ON AJC: Georgia teachers tell why they’re launching a hunger strike

Sunday, August 12, 2018 @ 11:00 AM

Several dozen teachers and concerned community members are participating in a two-week hunger strike set to begin Monday. They aren’t protesting for change but for a new practice to remain in place when the new governor takes office.

Hungry for Education, a group of local teachers, parents and students whose goal is improving student outcomes, is urging state administrators and legislators to continue full funding of Georgia public schools. They’ve organized the hunger strike to bring about awareness of the issue.

“We’re not anti-government or anything like that,” said Alex Robson, a Gwinnett County school teacher and organizer of the movement. “We think Governor (Nathan) Deal has done a tremendous job, and we want the next four years and beyond to be just as education-focused.”

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The group cited other education activists across the nation as inspiration for their movement. Teacher-led activism led to Arizona’s teachers receiving a 20 percent pay raise. Oklahoma increased school funding and teacher pay was raised by $6,000. West Virginia’s teachers earned a 5 percent raise.

“We want to use their momentum to help shine a spotlight on public education funding in Georgia,” Robson said.

But unlike those protests, Robson said, his group doesn’t advocate for walking off the job.

“I don’t want to see kids harmed in this effort,” he said. “I don’t want them lose any instruction time. But this is serious enough that we want public education to be a top priority for the next four years.”

Teachers taking part in the hunger strike will still be on the job. While on strike, they will decide individually how they want to define “hunger” and how long they’ll participate. Robson said he will only consume water, vitamins, lemon juice and one Gatorade a day — similarly to what Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi did during his hunger strikes.

“I talked to my doctor and I’ve been training for this,” he said. “I’m down to about 500 calories a day right now, and I still expect to have the energy to do my job.”

So far a few dozen have signed up to participate, but for health reasons, they may not complete the full two weeks. Robson said he anticipates more people joining in once the word is out.

In addition to the news conference planned Monday, Hungry for Education has garnered about 500 followers on Facebook. The effort also has Twitter and Instagram accounts and has been sharing messages with educators and political candidates throughout the state.

“We want everyone to understand how important this issue is,” Robson said.

Georgia’s schools were fully funded in 2018 for the first time in 16 years, proving that it can be done, according to Hungry for Education. Deal, whose two-term tenure as governor ends in January, made the decision to fully fund schools in the closing days of this year’s legislative session, after it became clear state revenues would allow it. The so-called “austerity cuts” began in the early 2000s on the heels of a recession and then the Great Recession hit a few years years later. Under the budget for fiscal 2019, which began July 1, the state will be pouring $9.9 billion into k-12 schools.

With those funds added back into their budgets, several school districts were able to hire additional school police officers (10 in Gwinnett), give staff and teacher cost of living adjustments, and put in place better educational support for students.

In the 15 years that schools were underfunded, austerity cuts led to some local school districts enacting furlough days, eliminating teaching positions and cutting arts programs. Since 2013, more than 95 percent of school districts increased class size. By continuing full funding, districts can begin to raise teacher salaries, provide necessary supplies, restore eliminated teaching positions and arts programs, organizers said.

To make full school funding a priority, the group is seeking pledges from the gubernatorial and legislative candidates that they will fully fund Georgia’s public schools for the next four years and re-examine the Quality Based Education formula.

In addition to educators getting behind Hungry for Education’s cause, more than 50 members of the clergy throughout the state have signed a letter asking Georgia’s elected officials to prioritize school funding.

“Without full funding of public education we are unable to provide equal opportunities for the children of the State of Georgia,” the letter states.

The Rev. Cecilia “Ceci” Duke of Christ Church Episcopal in Norcross was on board early in the process.

As a former teacher in the DeKalb County school system and a former counselor in Gwinnett County schools, she said she understands the need for proper public school funding.

“Lowering the student/teacher ratio is a big thing,” she said. “It greatly affects the learning relationship in that the teacher becomes more focused on crowd control in addition to curriculum demands and engaging students.”

She went on to add that good teachers want to incorporate personal and inspirational aspects of learning, which is impossible to do in an underfunded system.

And although so many religious leaders lending their voices should show the necessity of the issue, Duke said she hopes the general community will see the value in providing for the “care, health and well-being of our youth — whatever it takes.”

Robson said he doesn’t want people to see this as a political issue. “It’s not really bipartisan; it’s nonpartisan,” he said. “Who isn’t for better outcomes for our children? We just want to ensure a better future for the next generation.”