Thousands of teachers from the Seattle, Issaquah and Mercer Island school districts walked out of the classroom Tuesday and marched down Seattle's Second Avenue to Westlake Park.
The union-organized strike, one of a series of day-long walkouts in various districts, was a showcase of the issues facing both legislators and teachers — and the difficulty for either to prioritize which problem should be solved first.
Teachers at Tuesday’s rally called primarily for three things: fulfilling the constitutional mandate to fully fund education, adhering to class size requirements approved by voters last fall in I-1351, and limiting the use of standardized testing. But as state budget talks in Olympia sputter, it is highly unlikely that teachers will get everything they want. (Crosscut's John Stang reports that while teachers walked out, a Senate committee considered a bill to deny strikers pay and benefits.)
Asked about priorities among the teachers' demands, Seattle City Councilmember John Okamoto, a former Executive Director of the Washington Education Association who attended the Westlake rally, said, “The priority is the students. When it comes to the constitutional rights of children, you either do it or you don’t.”
It was a sentiment that seemed to be widely shared in the crowd at Westlake was a mass of red T-shirts and picket signs stretching beyond the boundaries of the park. The stereo system blasted a folksy song singing the praises of unions, proclaiming, “I would never cross a picket line!”
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that legislators had the constitutional obligation to fully fund education. The McCleary decision, as it is called, has not yet been satisfied. Lawmakers increased K-12 funding by almost $1 billion in the 2013-15 budget, but the court wasn't satisfied and the Legislature was held in contempt of court. Both the Republican and Democratic 2015-17 budget proposals claim to fully fund education, although that will be for the court to decide.
Compounding the McCleary difficulties is I-1351 to reduce class sizes, which will cost an estimated $4 billion and does not include a funding source. Legislators have suggested modified approaches to the initiative, including only reducing class sizes in grades K-3.
But, like other teachers, Ty (he didn’t want to give his last name) from the Issaquah School District, wasn’t buying it. “The voters passed I-1351,” he said. “It’s the law.”
Amy Ferguson, a first grade teacher from John Rogers Elementary in north Seattle, showed little patience for the difficulties in Olympia. “It’s time to fully fund education,” she said. When asked if she thought I-1351 was unrealistic she said, “It’s unrealistic for lawmakers to give themselves an 11 percent raise.” (A citizens commission is in charge of setting the raises for statewide elected officials.) Ferguson said she had 30 kids in her class and had not seen a raise in seven years.
Many teachers also called for a boycott of standardized tests. “If you add it up,” said Ty, “we spend a month a year doing standardized testing.”
Jane, an elementary school teacher from Issaquah who also didn't want to give a full name, said, if she had to prioritize an issue, she would prefer lower class sizes. “I don’t know why they can’t get more teachers,” she said. “Unfortunately, we’re not very expensive.”
In response to the teacher strikes, Senate Republicans argue that the increases in education have been unprecedented. This year, reads the Washington State Senate Majority Coalition Caucus website, saw “the greatest new investment in K-12 of any budget in state history.”
The Seattle Times ran a recent editorial arguing that the call for more funding “was resonating in Olympia long before these walkouts began in April.”
Okamoto said that in order to make everything work, “New funding sources are necessary that are progressive in nature.”
But Tuesday showed teachers are unlikely to let up until education is fully funded. Okamoto said if he were still the WEA executive director, he’d keep the pressure on legislators with exactly these kinds of rallies. “This is the best time for a rally,” he said. “The crisis is on [lawmakers]. Good things come out of crisis.”