Location USA USA

Revealed: Secret rightwing strategy to discredit teacher strikes

by Ed Pilkington

A nationwide network of rightwing thinktanks is launching a PR counteroffensive against the teachers’ strikes that are sweeping the country, circulating a “messaging guide” for anti-union activists that portrays the walkouts as harmful to low-income parents and their children.

The new rightwing strategy to discredit the strikes that have erupted in protest against cuts in education funding and poor teacher pay is contained in a three-page document obtained by the Guardian. Titled “How to talk about teacher strikes”, it provides a “dos and don’ts” manual for how to smear the strikers.

Top of the list of talking points is the claim that “teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families”. It advises anti-union campaigners to argue that “it’s unfortunate that teachers are protesting low wages by punishing other low-wage parents and their children.”

The “messaging guide” is the brainchild of the State Policy Network (SPN), an alliance of 66 rightwing “ideas factories” that span every state in the nation. SPN uses its $80m war chest – funded by billionaire super-donors such as the Koch brothers and the Walton Family Foundation that flows from the Walmart fortune – to coordinate conservative strategy across the country.

Another financial backer of SPN is the billionaire DeVos family of the Amway empire. Betsy DeVos is the current education secretary in the Trump administration.

SPN’s previous campaigns have included a plan to “defund and defang” public sector unions. Now it is turning its firepower on the striking teachers.

Teacher strikes have been spreading across the US following the example of West Virginia where a rebellion in February closed state schools for nine days but ended in victory for the teachers with a 5% pay rise. Wildcat actions have erupted in turn this month in Oklahoma and Kentucky in protest at what many teachers say are unlivable wages and savage Republican cuts to education budgets at the same time as they are cutting taxes.

A similar walkout is expected any day in Arizona.

The SPN document urges its followers to attack the walkouts stealthily, rather than criticising them directly. A head-on assault on teachers for their long summer vacations would “sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs [and] having to rely on food pantries”, it says.

The guide, written by SPN senior policy advisers, is revealingly candid about the difficult position that conservatives find themselves in within states that have aggressively cut taxes at the same time as slashing education budgets. “For those of you who are in states where you’ve cut taxes recently, that is sure to be a theme in coverage. That is obviously a challenging message to counter.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Guardian: “It’s fascinating that even Koch-funded conservatives recognize that there’s huge public support for public education and for treating teachers with respect.” She denounced SPN’s guide as a “piece of propaganda – the conservative strategy is to defund schools and delegitimize the voice of teachers”.

SPN’s talking points advise rightwing activists to emphasise the damage done to “good” teachers by the strikes instead of trying to justify low pay for all teachers. Similarly, attacking teachers for asking for more funding for schools would not be a winning argument, so SPN urges its followers to emphasise instead “red tape and bureaucracy”.

“In most states, administrators and other non-teaching staff vastly outnumber teachers,” the guide says. Then it adds, in capital letters and within parentheses: “[INSERT STAT ON ADMINISTRATIVE BLOAT FROM YOUR STATE].”

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