Seattle’s students unexpectedly got a bit longer summer vacation, thanks to a teacher strike that began this week on the first scheduled day of school.
Though the main sticking points, wages and work hours, are familiar, policies on teacher evaluation and discipline also remain contested between the 53,000-student district and the Seattle Education Association, which has about 5,000 members.
Teachers walked off the job Sept. 9, marking the first teachers’ strike in the city since 1985.
State mediators had been involved in negotiations for two weeks. But talks broke down just hours before school started, leaving parents scrambling to rejigger schedules and find child care.
Stephanie Jones, the executive director of Community & Parents for Public Schools of Seattle, a network of some 2,600 parents, said the strike carries implications far beyond employees, administrators, and the bottom line.
“Money is a big [factor], but it’s not just about money—also equity, discipline, testing, the affordability of living in Seattle,” she said. “It feels like the strike is shaping up to be a referendum on our values and priorities for education in the city.”
The strike comes against a backdrop of quarreling over K-12 funding. State lawmakers recently provided a boost of more than $1 billion in education funding in response to a 2012 state Supreme Court injunction, of which some $40 million went to the district. Seattle voters also approved two levies in 2013. But the SEA, a National Education Association affiliate, says those increases have yet to trickle down to the district’s salary proposals.
“This is really a symptom of Washington state not fully funding public education, but we also know that the district does have the money,” said Phyllis Campano, the union’s vice president.
The district said that its offers strike a balance between paying teachers fairly and fiscal responsibility. On at least one issue, it agrees with the union—that the state has continued to underfund its portion of teacher salaries.
Seattle resident David Roberts, the parent of a 4th and a 6th grader, said he sympathizes with teachers and supports efforts to secure more state funding for schools. But finding child care at the last moment was challenging—and he says he’s aware that other families are having problems affording it.
“The timing of the strike seems awful. I wish it could have been resolved in the summer,” Roberts said. “And the funding issues seem like they’ve been going on for years.”
Some of the key topics at issue in the strike include:
• Wages: At press time, the district was offering a 9 percent raise over a three-year period; the Seattle Education Association’s latest demand was for 10.5 percent over two years. (Those figures do not include an approved state cost-of-living adjustment.)
• Length of the school day: Seattle teachers’ in-school workday amounts to about 7½ hours, but they instruct for only a little more than six. The district wants to rebalance the schedule to include 20-30 additional minutes of daily instructional time in the contract’s third year; the union says it won’t work that time for free.
• Teacher evaluation: The Seattle district currently can use district or state standardized-test scores to trigger additional scrutiny of teachers, though it does not count toward their formal evaluation results. The union wants to scratch that option, noting that it applies only to a fraction of teachers.
• Testing: Long critical of standardized tests, the union wants a say over the addition of nonrequired tests.
• Equity: The union wants to establish teams at schools to reduce discipline practices that disproportionately affect students of color.
• Recess: Teachers complained that recess time varied from school to school; the district has tentatively agreed to reserve at least 30 minutes of recess daily for elementary students.
Striking is not legally protected in Washington state, and the Seattle school board has authorized Superintendent Larry Nyland to take legal action against the striking teachers, though that had not happened as of press time.
The SEA has promised to remain on strike regardless, and there’s precedent for that not far away: Teachers striking in the Pasco district, in Washington state’s tri-city region, ignored a judge’s order on Sept. 4 to return to work.
News reports said about 2,000 Seattle educators participated in the voice vote to support the strike. Still, some educators faulted both parties for not working harder to avoid one.
“The rhetoric from both sides is so crazed,” said Evin Shinn, a 9th grade humanities teacher at Cleveland High School in south Seattle. “We teach our students to keep your calm, keep your cool, stay at the table. It’s kind of amazing to me that both sides have thrown up their hands.”
Parents seem largely supportive of better pay for teachers. A parent-volunteer group, Soup for Teachers, was bringing hot meals to picketers, and a change.org petition calling on the district to settle the contract had more than 4,000 signatures.
But they are divided on some of the other issues. Louisa Clayton, the mother of an 8th grader, said that she wants pay boosts coupled with accountability. “I agree the position is underpaid, but it is infuriating that we, as parents, have no control over who actually teaches our kids,” she said.
The closed nature of collective bargaining probably contributes to the diversity of opinions, said Jones of the Seattle parent network.
“The community is sort of last to learn that a crisis is brewing because we’re not there, so I know that the strike caught a lot of parents off guard,” she said. “They didn’t see the level of discord between the district and teachers.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Seattle Teachers Strike Over Pay, Delaying Start of School Year