In 1892, my great-grandfather’s hotel building in Homestead, Pa., became the headquarters for one of the most important moments in the empowerment of American workers: the Homestead Steel Strike. While the steelworkers lost their battle with Carnegie Steel Company, the strike became an organizing model that would later ignite the labor movement across the country — leading to greater income equality, trust-busting, child labor laws, the expansion of public education, Social Security, the eight-hour workday and the weekend.
The steelworkers’ strike wasn’t just about pay. It was also about protecting their voice in leading their profession — including their involvement in hiring new steelworkers — and ultimately about standing up for economic fairness.
Monday night, thousands of Maryland public school educators, from Garrett County to Worcester County and everywhere in between, will get on buses and travel to Annapolis to protest our underfunded schools and call for a new investment in our state’s public education system. We might not be striking like my great-grandfather’s steelworker friends, but we are organizing for better neighborhoods and a better state on the strength of their shoulders.
This is our Red for Ed moment. We’ve seen waves of educators and public education supporters clad in red at state capitals and cities across the country demanding much-needed resources for students and schools. And that’s just what we’ll see in Annapolis.
We’re calling it the March for Our Schools, and all are welcome to join, because this really is about all of us and the future of Maryland.
Yes, like the steelworkers and the Red for Ed movement, some of this is about inadequate pay. In the last decade, the value of the average Maryland teacher’s salary has gone down by 6 percent when adjusted for the cost of living. Teachers now make 25 percent less than other college graduates who work in similarly high-skilled professions, like architects and accountants. More than 24,000 school support staff members don’t make a living wage. We can’t recruit and retain outstanding educators when more than 40 percent of us currently work a second job to make ends meet.
But we are also marching to get a bigger seat at the decision-making table. Education has been systematically taken out of the hands of educators and communities, little by little, over the past few decades. People who have never worked in a classroom, who have never been trained to work with students, have increasingly made decisions that conflict with educators’ better judgement and the actual needs of schools. Standardized testing has crowded out instruction, and public taxpayer dollars have flooded to unaccountable privately-operated schools. If we want true education reform, it’s time educators led it.
However, this march — part of a new labor movement — is really about fighting for a fairer future. We live at a time when income inequality has never been greater in our country: when 45 percent of students need free or reduced-price meals at school because they cannot afford them otherwise; when our schools are underfunded by $2.9 billion annually; and when 55 percent of black students, but just 28 percent of white students, attend the five most underfunded districts. This is not acceptable or sustainable. It’s not how we build the foundation of a successful economy or secure future for our students.
That’s why we’re marching for expanded career technical education, so all students are prepared for good jobs. We’re marching for more counselors, more psychologists and more community schools that provide critical services in our highest-poverty communities. We’re marching for more support for special education and English language learners. We’re marching for universal pre-kindergarten. We’re marching for the schools that every child in Maryland deserves.
Fortunately, legislators have worked with education advocates and experts to develop a plan that can finally deliver on the promise of equal opportunity no matter your ZIP code. They are aptly calling it The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. While it carries a significant price tag, the cost of doing nothing is far, far greater — to our students, economy and state. We will march to forcefully make the case to our neighbors, our families, our friends and our elected leaders that we must follow that blueprint to a fairer future for all of our children or risk losing their futures to braver states and nations.
Our kids can’t wait for the schools they deserve. It’s time for us to march and make them a reality.
Cheryl Bost is president of the Maryland State Education Association and the 2002-2003 Baltimore County teacher of the year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.