Educators, who are getting ready to strike Tuesday, rally in front of Kenai Central High School, on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Educators, who are getting ready to strike Tuesday, rally in front of Kenai Central High School, on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Voices of the Peninsula: Why we would strike

You deserve to know what this is about.

  • By Nathan Erfurth
  • Tuesday, September 17, 2019 1:24am
  • Opinion

The one thing we can all agree on is that we are frustrated. This teacher strike should not be happening.

You’re reading this because I’m tired of pretending I have no opinion on how my professional colleagues are valued. I’m tired of staying silent and hoping others will back me up. We are trained this way — to avoid posting public opinions and feelings. Why are teachers taught in colleges to have no posted or public opinions of any sort?

Because they might want another job. It might “look bad” if you had an opinion once.

As it turns out, I don’t want another job. I want this one. Now I’m fighting to stay instead of running off in search of a better salary and benefits package in the private sector or in some other community.

Here is what I keep coming across in this conversation, and here are some answers. You deserve to know what this is about.

1. Where is the money for this going to come from?

The union has pointed out existing funds that can be used for fair health care in the nonexempt fund. The district has said that they are worried that the $20 million held up by the governor will either not come through or only come through in part, which is entirely reasonable. The proposal has language that scales raises and benefits based on how much comes through after everything’s sorted in the courts. Employees have all of the risk.

2. Why are teachers doing this?

Before I was a parent, I believed I would never strike and that I’d always be in my classroom for my students. Now I have a son and a little girl on the way, and I have to make sure that if they get sick or hurt, I don’t have to go bankrupt trying to keep them alive and healthy on the Kenai Peninsula. I already have no way to save for college for them, and I’ll have to figure that out later.

Why else are we doing this? Because of our incredibly undervalued support staff. We have expert aides working right alongside us with our students every single day, and we have some leaving because their pay is so low that they sometimes owe money back to the district for health care at the end of the month — no paycheck collected. That’s absurd. The supports and relationships that they provide for these kids are irreplaceable, from the intensive needs classroom, to the custodian’s office, to the lunch line, to the classroom aides.

3. Why do teachers think they have the right to do this when others have worse health care and don’t have the option to strike?

You’re right. We’re lucky that we are in a legal position to do this. We have fought long and hard for the right to do this in this country, and so have many other workers of many kinds. Health care in this country is a nearly universal problem. We should band together as a community, not split apart. We welcome you. Educators are some of the most inclusive people out there. We can disagree a thousand ways, but I still want you and your family to have a fair and fighting chance just like mine.

4. How will teachers make up this injustice to our kids (i.e., denying them their education)?

First, we won’t be paid during the strike. That’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make to sort this out. It’s also fair enough. Secondly, we will add the number of days missed to the end of the school calendar, if any are actually missed. If this gets sorted before Tuesday morning, we will go right to work. Students will receive the same number of contact hours and the same units of study. We’re just hitting pause so this can be fixed. If you don’t want your kids staying in school those extra days next summer, help us solve this fast by contacting your school board members.

5. Fire them all and replace them.

Good luck. Very few people want to work in this district if they have options elsewhere. We can’t even fill the open positions we currently have, and we have tried. Our health care plan, annual budget paralysis, and state budgetary outlook are huge discouraging factors for prospective teachers. People aren’t clamoring to teach in this district like they used to. The teachers you have now are already making opportunity cost sacrifices to be here instead of somewhere else.

Additionally, our experience is not disposable. What would it be like at your place of work if everyone with experience and knowledge suddenly disappeared, replaced with all new recruits? Productivity would suffer, and so would a lot of other things. If we’re all replaced, the children suffer. We aren’t replaceable parts. We are crucial elements in the lives of your children. Furthermore, that would be illegal. This is a legal strike.

6. They can go somewhere else if they don’t like it.

Yes. And some of us have. You’re right. You’re also forgetting that you’ll get new teachers in the same situation, and from a broader community perspective, nothing will have improved, and you’ll only have lost valuable institutional knowledge and experience. Backwards steps.

7. Teachers are just greedy.

No, we aren’t. We just don’t want to go broke because of health care. Don’t forget that this is a joint union action — we are fighting for our support staff brothers and sisters too, who generally have far fewer options and far lower pay. We want the same freedom for you, because we want your kids to have stability and financial safety. Maybe you should come join us and we can make change for everyone.

8. Teachers in Alaska are paid more than anyone else in the country.

Maybe if all you’re looking at is the salary. You have to account for cost of living. The last time I checked, we weren’t in first place when adjusted for cost of living, we were in 29th (based on 2017 data). I’d like you to note also that I do not have the option to retire in this state. I don’t get Social Security when I’m done, and the state itself has assessed our Tier III retirement plan very poorly. I will never have enough in that plan to live off of. We have one of the worst retirement systems in the country at current. You can’t go much lower than discarding people who have served your communities for decades.

9. Our test scores are poor, you don’t deserve more money.

Read the data correctly. Our district scores rather highly against the state. Also, learn about how assessment actually works. Those test scores (especially this year) are subject to a thousand factors. For one, we have changed tests *constantly* in this state, and for the last several years we’ve just been trying to establish a baseline. The current data is not valid to determine whether or not we are doing a good job, and even if it was, we are still measuring above the rest of the state.

10. “It’s about the kids.”

You’re right, but the implication (which is often not at all merely implied) here is “stop thinking about yourselves, educators.” Every choice I’ve made in this career has been focused on this statement, including the choice to strike. The same is true for the majority of my colleagues. Trying to argue that we don’t have a right to fair health care or inflation and cost-of-living responsive wages because we serve children smells a little bit like “taking care of children is women’s work, so we don’t need to pay for that.” If you mean that we should silently get sick or sustain injury, then go bankrupt in the process of trying to get better simply because “it’s for the kids,” I’m frankly not seeing the part where that benefits them.

We want a better health care plan because we want to stay here doing this job for our students. I teach for children. I don’t teach to become rich or scam the government. There are a hundred other jobs I could choose to do that far more effectively. I don’t have a big enough ego to say that I’m the best at what I do, or anywhere near the best. But I know you’re not going to get someone better to take my place with things the way they are.

I don’t want to strike, but I will.

If this doesn’t get sorted.

Please sort it.

Nathan Erfurth teaches at Soldotna High School.

Nathan Erfurth teaches at Soldotna High School.

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