Thousands of teachers recently skipped class last week to march toward their state capitols, their color-coordinated masses painting Phoenix and Denver streets red ("for ed") in a replay of recent scenes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
As many as 60,000 were expected to participate in the walkouts, even as Arizona temperatures neared triple digits and a Colorado bill threatened up to six months in the county jail for striking teachers.
Experts say there's no precedent for this string of statewide teacher demonstrations in the past two months — and no telling whether they will continue to inspire more of the same.
Most have come in Republican-controlled states that slashed education spending during the Great Recession and never fully restored it. The movements have been largely driven by social media, not union leadership, and marked by a take-no-prisoners zealousness. And so far, they've resulted in some successes.
In West Virginia, a two-week strike forced a 5 percent raise. In Kentucky, rally participants compelled the Legislature to override the governor's veto of a budget that increased education spending. Even in Oklahoma, where lawmakers didn't go as far as teachers had hoped, the state allocated nearly $500 million in new funding.
A nationwide poll conducted earlier this month by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that nearly 4 in 5 Americans believe teachers are underpaid, though only a slight majority approve of strikes and only half support raising taxes in the name of education.
After increasing by about $10,000 in 2018 dollars during the 1980s, the average U.S. teacher salary had been relatively flat for the better part of two decades leading up to the Great Recession. Since then, according to a report released earlier this week by the National Education Association, salaries have fallen by 4 percent.
Public schools get nearly half of their funding from states, and local revenues make up most of the remainder. Twenty-nine states cut their per-pupil spending between 2008 and 2015, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — Arizona did so by nearly 37 percent — and as property taxes fell, so too did local revenues.
Although studies have produced varied conclusions about the direct impacts of funding on student achievement, there's no denying that many states are struggling to recruit and retain qualified teachers, and that U.S. children fare poorly academically compared to their peers in other industrialized nations.
The recent demonstrations have proven that U.S. teachers enjoy bipartisan sympathies, even in the most tax-averse states. They may also be riding groundswells of support for public engagement, progressive policies and women. Midterm elections loom.
But without further victories in Arizona or Colorado — where, as in Oklahoma, lawmakers had already promised major concessions before the walkouts began — observers wonder if the movement's embers will fade, and if the public will weary of teachers' demands.
And if this turns out to be a moment, and not a broader movement, will the short-term victories have been meaningful enough?
Cindy Gaete is in her third year teaching at Tulsa, Oklahoma's Marshall Elementary School, a Title I school with many low-income students.
In her first year, they lost an art teacher and a librarian's assistant.
Year two, they axed pre-kindergarten and autism programs.
Less than two months into the current school year, the district "rebalanced" to offset teacher shortages at other schools. Marshall lost one teacher, and Gaete's class size jumped from 18 to 26 students.
Oklahoma's per-pupil spending fell by nearly 16 percent between 2008 and 2015, while its state education funding plummeted more than 28 percent. Its average teacher salary, at $45,000, is the nation's second-lowest according to National Education Association estimates, and teachers haven't had a raise since 2008. One-fifth of its districts have moved to afour-day school week to cut costs.
"It seems like every year it's getting worse, and we always ask ourselves, 'How bad does it have to get before things actually change?'" Gaete said.
A previous Oklahoma teachers strike had the unintended effect of freezing the state's education spending for decades to come.
After half of the state's teachers closed down a quarter of Oklahoma's school districts in April 1990, lawmakers rushed them $230 million through sales and income tax increases. But opponents soon got payback. In 1992, a ballot initiative mandated a 75 percent supermajority in both chambers of the state Legislature for any future tax hike. Tax increases were basically history.
Even with a bipartisan consensus that something needed to be done for Oklahoma's teachers, Republicans were in the unusual position of needing support from the minority Democrats, and Democrats rejected so-called "regressive" sources like sales tax, which disproportionately affect the poor.
But a couple of factors galvanized teachers to apply more pressure in recent months.
First, a math teacher who was named Oklahoma's 2016 Teacher of the Year, Shawn Sheehan, posted two 2017 blog posts explaining his decision to move to North Texas and detailing the $40,000 increase in combined income that he and his wife — also a teacher — earned at their new schools. The posts went viral. One made the front page of Reddit.
And then there was West Virginia.
"When we saw how West Virginia teachers really rallied together and had strength in numbers, they were an inspiration to Oklahoma," Gaete said.
One teacher launched a Facebook group, "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout — The Time is Now." As the group's followers grew — it had nearly 67,000 members as of this week — legislators hashed out a late-March deal: an increase in taxes on cigarettes, fuel and energy production that would give teachers an average raise of $6,000.
Teachers decided to walk out anyway, and most involved have mixed feelings about what their two-week strike accomplished.
Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said it was "a powerful deal" for teachers to unite with their colleagues around the state, and it showed the utility of social media.
But Allen said the weakness of the grassroots approach was that teachers had "unrealistic" expectations that led the statewide union, the Oklahoma Education Association, to demand the impossible — $10,000 instead of $6,000 raises, and an additional $200 million instead of $50 million annually for schools. The Oklahoman editorial board wrote afterward that the union had refused "to take 'yes' for an answer."
Legislators felt villainized, Allen said. Union reps were lampooned on social media if they said the funding measures were "historic." The walkout ended with a "thud," he said.
Deven Carlson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, said the gains for teachers were "substantial," but that it's easy to imagine that another decadeslong funding drought will follow, as it did in 1990. A more lasting change would occur if the state's education spending begins to track with inflation, at least.
"If this is all there is for the next 25, 30 years, then it's going to look less impressive than if this ultimately turns out to be a kind of turning point," he said.
Sheehan, the teacher-blogger, said he's recently heard from a dozen teachers who still have questions about moving out of state.
"I think they are skeptical that they will see any gains in the near future," he said. "And they're already critical of the legislation that's been put in place. They're doubtful that they'll actually follow through with it."
For Gaete, who walked 110 miles from Tulsa to join the Oklahoma City protests, the focus has shifted to November. Many Oklahoma teachers have announced their candidacy for state office, and Gaete filed herself but was disqualified because of a technicality about registration.
This year's legislation wasn't perfect, Gaete said, but it was progress.
"You shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you fall among the stars. We fell among the stars here."
Although the walkouts have frequently been characterized as a "red state" revolution, Colorado has upended that narrative with its Democrat governor and House majority.
It's not all about teacher pay and school funding, either. In Kentucky, teachers were spurred to protest by an underfunded pension system and a recent move to a hybrid retirement plan with a 401(k) element for new teachers.
There also appears to be little talk of walkouts in other states that, on paper, seem to be a lot like West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma.
Utah has the nation's second-lowest per-pupil spending ($6,900), its third-highest number of students per teacher (23 — Vermont has just nine) and its sixth-lowest average teacher pay ($48,000).
But Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recently signed citizen-led legislation that freezes property tax rates and asks voters to support an increase in gas taxes, raising education spending as much as $400 million, according to the Associated Press, and likely forestalling any strike here.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael Hansen said the unusual cluster of demonstrations led him to wonder about the formula for a statewide strike, and which other states might follow suit.
Hansen's analysis finds four commonalities between the four Republican-controlled strike states: 1. low average salaries, 2. reductions in inflation-adjusted salaries since the recession, 3. reductions in per-pupil spending since the recession, and 4. state-determined salary schedules, which focus attention on state capitols instead of district offices.
(Colorado ranks closer to the U.S. average by most measures, and, like Arizona, doesn't have the state-determined salary schedule.)
Judging by those factors alone, Hansen deduced that teachers in Mississippi and North Carolina are the most likely copycat strikers.
Mississippi ranks second-to-last in average salary, with decreases of 16 percent in teacher salaries and 12 percent in per-pupil spending. North Carolina — where organizers have planned a May teacher advocacy day to coincide with legislators' return to session — is 10th in average salary, down 5 percent since the recession, and has seen a 12 percent dip in per pupil spending.
Other states in Hansen's matrix are Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah.
Hansen said the strikes stem from tensions that have been simmering for 10 years, as the pinch of funding cuts has been exacerbated by reformers' efforts to increase teacher accountability.
Stoking the flames are "tailwinds," Hansen said, from the progressive resistance to Republican President Donald Trump and the #MeToo and women's movements. (More than three-quarters of U.S. public school teachers are women.)
But Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said teachers may begin to lose their abundant sympathy in Republican circles if they appear to politicize the issue. Strikes can already test the patience of parents, Hess said, who have to make alternate plans for their children.
"Parents start to say, 'Wait a minute. You're disrupting school because you want to make a posture that's not going to lead to any real change?'"
And even though teacher salaries have declined in recent years, Hess points out, per-pupil spending increased 27 percent between 1992 and 2014, as more money was directed toward non-instructional staff and pensions. Taxpayers, whose property tax bills keep rising, don't feel like they've been shorting schools.
"Most people, in a place like Oklahoma, they think a $6,000 raise is actually pretty darn fair," Hess said. "As you go to states where teachers are not as obviously poorly paid, and if those teachers start to seem to be looking a gift horse in the mouth and wanting to make a statement, it's going to undermine goodwill, I think."
Sheehan has a related concern. He founded a nonprofit, Teach Like Me, to improve teacher recruitment and retention by encouraging teachers to speak more positively about their jobs. Strikes don't involve much of that.
But on the whole, he said, it's "good news" that "teachers are finally recognizing that gone are the days where they could just close their classroom doors and teach."
"This is not done," he said. "There is a wave right now of movement in education, and it's not going anywhere."