An old conspiracy theory holds that the Washington Education Association – the state teachers union – targets a school district every so often and urges its local union affiliate to stage a bruising strike.
The resulting school closure is as much a display of raw power – a cautionary tale for other districts and the Legislature – as it is a quarrel over the terms of a contract.
We’ve never seen proof, but the strike in Tacoma certainly doesn’t weaken the theory.
The final contract agreement – forcefully brokered by Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday – was no great coup for either the Tacoma Education Association or the school district.
The 2011 Legislature had ordained a 1.9 percent cut in teacher compensation, and it eliminated funding earmarked for holding down class size. In the end, the TEA – which had sought reductions in class sizes – more or less hung on to the status quo, though it gave up a training day that translated into a .5 percent pay cut.
The real flash point was the district’s insistence that administrators be allowed more discretion over which schools teachers are assigned. The union insisted on a traditional system that emphasized seniority.
At Gregoire’s prodding, the two sides agreed to the creation of a committee that will study the options and adopt a new assignment policy. Under the agreement, seniority reportedly will not be a dominant factor.
There’s no reason these reasonable compromises couldn’t have been reached earlier, without the governor’s intervention. More to the point, there’s no reason they couldn’t have been reached by bargaining into the school year, without striking and without creating child-care crises in homes across the city.
So what was the point of the strike? A suspicious soul might conclude that the strike itself was the point of the strike – that the union closed the schools to show that it could close the schools.
The Legislature itself bears much of the responsibility for this debacle. Lawmakers cut money for teacher pay and class size, but they didn’t have the guts to take the heat for it – they left the details open to collective bargaining in local districts. Statewide disputes over school funding were thus outsourced to the districts and the unions.
For that matter, the Legislature could have provided a clear state policy on the role of seniority and other contentious issues that racked Tacoma this year and no doubt will rack other districts in years to come.
The governor, though, deserves nothing but praise for the way she stepped in, knocked heads together and squeezed a deal out of two parties that appeared to be deadlocked and hardening in their positions. Tacomans will long remember her welcome intervention.