Except for devout fans of the state’s teachers unions, Washingtonians detest strikes that close their children’s schools. The natural response is to grump about them. So let’s grump.
The latest invention of the Washington Education Association is a rolling walkout that shuts down districts across the state, each for one day. Upwards of 60 of its local affiliates have signed on, including Franklin Pierce, University Place, Steilacoom, Peninsula and Puyallup.
Despite the WEA’s legally ingenious claims, teacher strikes are categorically illegal in Washington. State law forbids all public employees from striking. When districts have asked courts to order an end to strikes, judges have done so. Union leaders have not appealed the injunctions. They aren’t dummies, and they have a pretty good idea of how the higher courts would come down.
Illegalities aside, strikes have served the teachers unions well. They inflict immense stress on parents and pressure on school boards. They make for a powerful weapon in contract talks.
This year’s strike targets the Legislature. Here are the WEA’s grievances, as listed on its political action website, followed by our rejoinders:
•Both the House and the Senate budgets essentially overturn voter-approved Initiative 1351, which requires the state to fund smaller class sizes in every grade level. That means most students would remain stuck in overcrowded classrooms.
That’s accurate as far as it goes, depending on how “overcrowded” is defined in the upper grades. Unfortunately, that WEA-funded initiative didn’t include a dime for those smaller class sizes, and the Legislature is already stretching the available revenues to put $1.3 billion of new money into the schools.
•While legislators likely are getting an 11 percent raise and an increase in health benefit funding, the Senate budget proposes a minimal 3 percent COLA for educators spread over two years and no increase in funding for health benefits. (The House budget is slightly better on COLAs, and includes an increase in educator health care funding.)
A reasonable gripe. Washington’s teachers deserve more from the state. And an 11 percent raise for lawmakers would be spectacularly ill-timed.
•Instead of focusing on funding, the Senate passed a controversial bill that expands the misuse of high-stakes standardized testing.
Unions protect even their weakest members from threats. That’s their job. But the public needs accountable schools. Looking at student performance during the evaluation of principals and teachers is one of several ways to achieve that. It’s common practice in other states, and many Washington districts do it already without controversy.
•The Senate also has proposed a bill that would dramatically restrict local decision making in school districts. The bill prohibits districts from using levies to provide classes and programs beyond what the state funds, such as art, music and AP classes.
That diabolical Senate! This complaint is actually an artfully phrased defense of the practice of wringing supplemental salaries – sometimes more than $15,000 a year for a veteran teacher – out of school boards. The specter of punitive strikes makes it hard for board members to refuse. Because property values dictate how much supplemental money districts can come up with, high-poverty communities are left at a great disadvantage in paying their educators.
That maligned Senate bill needs a lot of work, but the Legislature must eventually do what it proposes: Replace most local compensation with generous state compensation, and put wealthy and poor districts on a level playing field.
Does the WEA’s bill of indictment make a case for shutting down schools? Nowhere close, even if the walkouts were legal. Teachers unions are led by fine people, but let’s be honest: Their interests and the public interest can be two very different things.