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What has and hasn't changed for teachers in the 5 years since 'Red for Ed' walkouts

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Once a week, public school teachers across the country still abide by a shared tradition.

SARAH POMEROY: To this day, we push teachers to wear #RedforEd on Wednesdays.

SHAPIRO: It's a reminder of the #RedforEd movement that began five years ago. Teachers and public school staff were fed up with low wages, shrinking benefits and what many describe as a lack of respect from their legislators. So in spring of 2018, educators took to the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting, inaudible).

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jonaki Mehta talked to teachers in four different states to see what has and hasn't changed since then.

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: Teaching is in Sherri Shumate's blood.

SHERRI SHUMATE: My mother was a teacher. In fact, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Thurman, W.Va. - multitudes of teachers in our family.

MEHTA: Shumate's been teaching for more than 40 years in Beckley, W.Va., and she plans to stick with it. But she never intended to pass down the family tradition to her own children.

SHUMATE: I have two daughters. I would never have paid for an education for them to become a teacher. They're both attorneys (laughter).

MEHTA: Shumate has had a second job for most of her working life. It's been necessary in a state that ranks in the bottom three when it comes to average teacher salaries. Low funding was at the heart of why record numbers of teachers walked out of their public schools in 2018 from West Virginia...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

MEHTA: ...To Kentucky...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting, inaudible).

MEHTA: ...To Arizona...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #3: (Chanting, inaudible).

MEHTA: ...And beyond.

RODRIGO PALACIOS: Really, at the center of it was this realization that our state legislature had neglected public education for so long.

MEHTA: That's veteran Arizona high school teacher, Rodrigo Palacios. Five years since the #RedforEd movement began, we wanted to know if things had gotten any better for teachers and school staff. The answer was mixed. Here are teachers Christina Trosper of Kentucky, Valerie Lovato of Colorado and Palacios in Arizona.

CHRISTINA TROSPER: The legislatures are still killing us.

VALERIE LOVATO: I'm actually really happy with what we've gotten.

PALACIOS: It's made a little bit of a difference, sure. But I think in these last five years, those raises have come with conditions.

MEHTA: One example of those conditions - in Arizona, teachers won a 20% salary increase over the course of three years.

PALACIOS: But the devil is always in the detail.

MEHTA: That's Palacios again, who's now the president of his local union chapter in Tempe. He's talking about the fact that the funding for that 20% raise, it left out a lot of essential school employees who are not classroom teachers.

PALACIOS: There was no way that we're going to be able to sit here comfortably and say, we got ours. Custodial staff, administrative assistants, support staff, you're going to have to do your own work to fight for this stuff.

MEHTA: West Virginia teachers also got a pay raise, and theirs was 5%. But it hasn't been enough to keep up with their insurance premiums, which just went up again this year.

SHUMATE: And I can remember thinking, OK, I'm losing money on this pay raise.

MEHTA: That's Sherri Shumate again. Over in Colorado, Sarah Pomeroy wouldn't say she lost money on the 6% raise that came out of her district's walkouts.

POMEROY: That was a good amount of money. But then, I mean, the reality is I'm still living in a van.

MEHTA: Pomeroy is an elementary school teacher in Summit County. She's been living out of that van for nearly two years now. It's the only way she could afford to live without roommates in the mountain town she calls home.

POMEROY: I think at this point, I could not do another winter. It's cold (laughter).

MEHTA: Pomeroy doesn't want to move. She loves the friends and community she's built, that she gets to ski, rock climb and teach. And in order to keep teaching, she said she's had to take her blinders off about the profession. She stayed involved in her union. In fact, like Palacios, she's now her chapter's president. She says that might not have happened without the #RedforEd movement.

POMEROY: I think it rose awareness around the injustices that exist in public education, and I also think it gave teachers a space to raise their voice.

LOVATO: Knowing that we have a voice and it's OK for us to speak up, just that camaraderie.

MEHTA: That's Valerie Lovato, also in Colorado. She teaches in Denver School District, which agreed to an average pay raise of almost 12% for both teachers and support staff. Unlike the other educators I spoke to, Lovato says she was happy with what Denver teachers won.

LOVATO: It felt like I could upgrade my house and, you know, get a new car. I felt comfortable doing that because I knew how much I was going to be making.

MEHTA: But Lovato says she's locked into teaching in Denver or else she'd risk a pay cut. In Kentucky, Nema Brewer was part of her district's support staff when the #RedforEd movement took off. She says the walkout left many school employees like her eager to do more, so she helped form a statewide union for teachers and public employees.

NEMA BREWER: Everybody rode this wave - and it's really high - of activism and solidarity and then kind of wondered what to do next. And so what we did next was we got rid of our governor.

MEHTA: In 2018, Kentucky's Republican governor was an outspoken critic of public school teachers. The next year, those same teachers successfully organized to get him out and get Democrat Andy Beshear in.

BREWER: We did the heavy lifting of moving Republican educators to either not vote or to vote for Andy. And that was a beautiful thing. Like, I'll be honest with you, I cried for the first time in probably two years when that happened.

MEHTA: She says that feeling of agency, the ability to make change through organizing an action, that stuck around. And it can go a long way in making educators feel like they matter.

BREWER: It's not easy, but we're going to keep going. And I would hope that our #RedforEd brothers and sisters would keep going. Like, yes, it sucks, and it's hard. But you have got to keep going because if not us, who else?

MEHTA: That's a good question. At a time when fewer people have been going to college to become teachers and many schools are struggling to staff classrooms. Jonaki Mehta, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.