Teachers in Washington state, frustrated by salaries that have lagged behind the cost of living for years, have been voting in a growing number of districts and schools to walk out in protest.
So far, teachers in 11 districts have approved one-day walkouts scheduled for later this month. Votes will be held in at least another 13 of the state’s 296 districts over the next couple of weeks, according to Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
“Things have been heating up. There are lots of rallies,” Mr. Wood said.
The teacher unrest is the worst in the state since 1991, when 21,000 teachers went on strike for almost two weeks. This year, as then, most of the participating districts are in the Puget Sound area, including the 48,000-student Seattle schools. Last week, the Seattle Education Association, representing more than 4,000 teachers in the state’s largest district, voted to hold a one-day districtwide walkout April 22.
Teachers in several schools in Seattle and the nearby Kent district have already stayed out of school for a day. Teachers in nearby Issaquah, instead of voting to walk out, decided to send delegations to lobby the state legislature in Olympia.
The target of the teachers’ ire is a statewide salary allocation by the legislature and the governor that puts a cap on what districts can pay their teachers.
State leaders have barely nudged the salary level upward since 1992. “Zero, zero, four, zero, three, zero” read campaign buttons being worn by some Washington teachers, listing the percentage increases to the cap beginning in the 1993-94 school year.
The stagnation in earnings has left teachers’ purchasing power 15 percent behind the cost of living, the WEA claims. The union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has proposed a 15 percent “cost-of-living adjustment"--the WEA doesn’t call it a raise--over the next two years.
Last week, the union also filed a proposed ballot initiative with the state that, if approved by voters in November, would provide automatic, annual cost-of-living boosts for all school employees beginning in the 2001-02 school year. The union will decide later whether to collect the 180,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot, Mr. Wood said.
Teachers earn, under the statewide salary schedule, a base salary of between $22,950 and $48,141, excluding benefits and depending on experience.
New teachers have the most difficulty. And the salary shortfall appears especially glaring in the Puget Sound region, where a thriving economy has shoved housing prices skyward in recent years.
“I sometimes drive new teachers around to look at housing,” said Charles Hasse, a teacher at McMicken Heights Elementary School in the 18,800-student Highline district, near Seattle. “It’s dismal, the kind of housing they could afford with a beginning teacher’s salary. It’s depressing to see how their faces fall.”
Political leaders meeting in Olympia have made education a centerpiece of the current legislative session, which ends April 25. They agree that teachers need raises, but not on how much.
All the pending legislative proposals fall well short of the 15 percent raise demanded by teachers.
Last week, Democratic Gov. Gary Locke endorsed a proposal by House Democrats to increase pay for most teachers by between 8 and 10 percent over two years, plus an extra boost for beginning teachers, according to the governor’s spokesman, David Chai.
Democrats and Republicans share control of the House, with 49 seats each.
House Republicans have proposed a flat $2,000 raise plus three additional planning days-- making it not, strictly-speaking, a cost-of-living increase. That plan works out to an 11.7 percent increase for the lowest-paid teachers and a 5.6 percent increase for the highest paid over two years.
Budget-makers are constrained by a state law, Initiative 601, passed by voters in 1993, to put a lid on state spending, based on inflation and population growth. Another voter-approved measure, Referendum 49, has committed nearly $500 million of the state budget over the next two years for transportation projects, further limiting money on the table for education.
State schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson, a former president of the WEA, has suggested paying teachers 9.9 percent more over two years.
“They’re right--we’ve let ourselves get into a decade worth of neglect in basic areas,” she said.
Ms. Bergeson noted that some states are holding recruitment drives in Washington, offering signing bonuses, higher salaries, and, in some cases, lower class sizes.
“It’s an issue we’ve got to come to terms with,” Ms. Bergeson said. “We’re going to be in a much more competitive marketplace.”
Teachers’ feelings on the issue have been intensified, in part, by the statewide school accountability system that was launched in 1993.
In recent years, teachers have been upgrading their skills and revamping their curricula to meet new academic standards and a system of accountability based on statewide tests that is beginning to be implemented.
Mr. Hasse, the Highline teacher, said teachers have been working harder than ever and feel they deserve more. “When teachers see the new content standards, what their students are being asked to do on tests, they take that seriously,” he said. “People have been knocking themselves out on this.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Teacher Walkouts Spread Across Washington