Politicians’ portrayal of teachers shifts with … politics

In most political debates about education, teachers are excoriated as selfish or exalted as selfless. Either they care only about the money or care nothing about it.

Those archetypes emerged in the recent red state revolts in Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona in which teachers marched out of schools and into statehouses to demand change. Some got it. West Virginia teachers won a 5 percent raise for all state employees after a nine-day strike. The $6,100 raise the average teacher will see in Oklahoma fell short of what marchers wanted, which is why they’re now vowing to elect pro-education leaders in November.

On Thursday, Arizona educators voted to walk out of their schools, blaming a decade of underfunding that’s produced crowded classrooms, crumbling infrastructure, and low wages. “After years of starving our schools, some classes are stuffed with kids, while others sit empty because there isn’t a teacher to teach,” says organizer and Littleton elementary music teacher Noah Karvelis.

Thus far, Georgia’s been spared a teacher uprising, likely a combination of a pay scale that lands us in the middle of the pack and well-timed political overtures. The Legislature, which this session upped funding to create more exits out of traditional public schools, also made sure to increase the overall public school budget to stave off an election-year backlash. But the waters are churning here, too. “Great teachers are leaving the field and going to teach at private schools by the busload to escape the public school stigmas. We need real reform,” said one teacher.

Despite their numbers, teachers have often allowed politicians to control the narrative. The problem is politicians twist the storyline to suit their ends. When budgets enable small raises, lawmakers canonize teachers, recalling their saintly mothers and grandmothers who taught. But when money is tight and teachers chafe at no raises and ever larger class sizes, elected officials go on the attack, maintaining dedicated teachers don’t go into education for the money and their own grannies did it out of love.

After declaring that protesting teachers in his state had a “thug mentality,” Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin took his smears further, setting off a national furor with his statement that he “guaranteed” a child in Kentucky was sexually assaulted because some school districts in the state canceled classes so educators could rally at the Capitol.

Oklahoma Gov. Gov. Mary Fallin also angered educators when she compared teachers pushing for more school funding to “a teenage kid that wants a better car.” That led to one of my favorite teacher protest signs: “Damn those rich teachers and their 98 Camrys.”

While aided by teacher unions, this revolution gained momentum from grassroots foot soldiers tapping into the social media savvy with which Parkland teens ignited a national movement for new gun laws.

Fired-up teachers are harnessing the power of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to command the attention of lawmakers and energize peers. Educators are launching Facebook pages including #RedforED, which references the red teachers wear to symbolize their support for public education in response to what they consider attacks from Washington.

Their concerns grew after the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education; DeVos is a champion of school choice and a critic of what she calls a failing and antiquated public education system. In the past, such troubling statements from an education secretary might have provoked grumbling in the teacher’s lounge. Now, social media is amplifying that grumbling into a roar.

Younger teachers are arriving in their classrooms with a greater fluency in and comfort with social media as a communication and unifying tool, and are wielding it as deftly as their students. To show the effects of lagging funding on the classroom, Oklahoma teachers tweeted photos of ragged textbooks and broken chairs.

Other state employees, parents and students are marching alongside teachers, angry over budgets cuts that have eroded essential services and shortchanged schools. Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia and Arizona are among 29 states still providing less total school funding per student in 2015 than they were in 2008. Georgia was also on that list.

The state budget awaiting Gov. Nathan Deal's signature fully funds the state's K-12 formula for the first time in more than a decade. That influx of new dollars won't make up for years of classroom neglect by the state, according to many teachers. Nor will it address the growing teacher shortage, partly the result of veteran educators urging their own children and students to avoid a profession in which there's more and more responsibility and less and less respect.