Editorials

Will another Washington governor use bully pulpit to end teacher strikes?

Gov. Chris Gregoire chuckles along with the negotiating teams representing Tacoma Public Schools and Tacoma teachers after seven hours of negotiations in the governor’s office on Sept. 21, 2011. Time will tell if Gov. Jay Inslee gets involved with the current wave of teacher strikes in a similar way.
Gov. Chris Gregoire chuckles along with the negotiating teams representing Tacoma Public Schools and Tacoma teachers after seven hours of negotiations in the governor’s office on Sept. 21, 2011. Time will tell if Gov. Jay Inslee gets involved with the current wave of teacher strikes in a similar way. News Tribune file photo

School strikes are raging all along the I-5 corridor. Scores of families, including 52,000 students in Tacoma and Puyallup, are dealing with child-care crises of unknown duration. While thousands of teachers wait for equitable pay, the state’s “paramount duty” to provide children an education is fractured.

If Gov. Jay Inslee is stressed about this or planning to play an active role in ending the chaos, you wouldn’t know it from his social media accounts. His enthusiasm for Seattle pro sports teams, however, comes across loud and clear.

“What an amazing comeback by the @seattlestorm tonight,” he posted on his Twitter feed Tuesday, not long after Tacoma teachers voted to hit the picket lines. “Best of luck in #WNBAFinals.”

Inslee’s well-known, deep support for (and from) teachers unions might keep him on the sidelines for now. But at what point should a governor use his bully pulpit to try to encourage, or even broker, an agreement between teachers and school administrators?

That’s a fair question, especially given the way Inslee’s predecessor served as a forceful intermediary in the final hours of Tacoma’s eight-day school strike in 2011.

Gov. Christine Gregoire was a Democrat in her second term, just like Inslee. After talks in Tacoma broke down more than a week into the strike, she summoned both sides for an evening parley at her office; they didn’t leave until reaching a compromise.

Kurt Miller, Tacoma School Board president at the time, praised Gregoire for her intervention. “With her calling us to Olympia today, I knew she would get the job done because that’s the kind of governor she is.”

One could argue that hands-on executive involvement is even more critical now; in 2011, Tacoma’s strike was a one-off affair, whereas today a brushfire of school shutdowns smolders from Clark County to Tumwater, from Pierce County to Tukwila.

Early this year, state lawmakers, including Inslee, approved the last pieces of a Byzantine school funding formula that crippled local levy control and created regional pay disparities around Washington. Granted, they had to meet a longstanding Supreme Court order, and finally did, but they should’ve seen these walkouts coming a mile away.

They all bear some responsibility for the consequences. But legislators won’t return to Olympia to fine-tune their school-funding formula until January. Depending on how long the strikes continue, Inslee may find himself on the hot seat with temperatures rising fast.

So far, his office is playing it cool. “We are closely monitoring the status of the progress of the districts that are still bargaining right now,” according to a statement his spokeswoman sent to us Wednesday morning. “These are local bargaining issues that the governor or other state elected officials are not officially party to, but we know everyone involved is eager for these teachers and students to be back in the classroom.”

Sen. John Braun, the Senate’s chief Republican budget writer, wants firm action. He sent a letter to Inslee last month, urging him to seek a court injunction compelling teachers to work. Braun, who represents Centralia (where teachers went on strike Tuesday), correctly points out that public employee strikes are illegal in Washington.

But Inslee wouldn’t take such a draconian approach — nor should he, as it would be a recipe for ongoing antagonism. A Pierce County judge will order teachers back to class, if it comes to it.

The better role for Inslee is that of even-handed but no-nonsense super mediator. Ending a school strike would shine brightly on his legacy, as it did Gregoire’s; people were still talking and writing about her skill breaking the Tacoma impasse when she left office 16 months later.

We hope the governor is giving serious thought to how best to use his influence on behalf of tens of thousands of Washington families and teachers — and how long he should wait to wield it.

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