by Brian Washington
When President Obama visited her Ohio high school in 2011 to talk about a plan to help out the American worker, English teacher Courtney Johnson remembers feeling excited and applauding along with other educators as they chanted, “Restore the middle class! Restore the middle class!”
However, she told U.S. Senators in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday that, almost three years later, the words to that chant feel more like a prayer now.
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“I worry that I will be laid off in the coming weeks as my district has to find a way to trim $50 million more from our already bare bones budget.” said Johnson. “My husband, who holds a degree in Health Care Administration, was laid off a couple of weeks ago. In the past few years, we have made two major moves, suffered from two job losses, and had to rely on Brad’s (her husband) 401K to stay afloat.”
Johnson’s testimony, which took place during a closed-door retreat in a convention hall at the baseball stadium of the Washington Nationals, was designed to give the more than 40 Democratic U.S. Senators in attendance a “real world” understanding of the impact of a shrinking middle class.
I am frustrated that the pathways to the middle class that existed for my generation no longer exist for my students or my son. Why does the American dream have to end with me? The idea that you can work hard and become middle class has been ripped away.
“I bring home less in my paycheck now than I did three years ago,” said Johnson, who’s been teaching for 13 years. “Our governor (John Kasich) has raised the sales tax spreading my smaller paychecks thinner and thinner.
Johnson was one of several people invited to the retreat, which highlighted how working families like hers are struggling these days to make ends meet. It came in the wake of President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, when he talked about the importance of raising the minimum wage and creating “opportunity for all.”
This is Johnson’s second trip to the nation’s capitol to take part in political action. Three years ago, she spoke to federal lawmakers about the value of collective bargaining as a tool educators can use to advocate for children.
She’s also a staunch advocate for public school students and working families in Ohio. In 2011, she was featured in a television ad that was used in a successful statewide campaign to block right-wing politicians from silencing the voices of teachers, nurses, fire fighters, and other public employees and preventing them from advocating on behalf of the communities they serve.
“My activism is very important to me and it’s not always around education,” said Johnson, who also gets involved in social justice and labor issues, especially when they impact children. “It’s not just about teachers. This is about working people everywhere. When I go walk on a picket line for striking janitors, I am standing up for my students because those folks on that picket line have kids in my school district.”
Despite the challenges that she and other working families face, Johnson still has hope–especially when she looks into the eyes of her son, who is in the second grade, and her students. She still believes in the promise of America and that a quality public education can be used as a tool for economic advancement. But she adds lawmakers must be held accountable for doing their part–including supporting workers, restoring manufacturing, reforming Wall Street, and creating comprehensive, permanent, and reliable funding streams for all public schools.
“As our elected officials, we give our power, our voice to you,” Johnson told those attending the retreat. “Please, speak–and act–on our behalf.”