Will the Legislature strike back at teacher walkouts?

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Sen. Tim Sheldon

Tuesday's sharpest feedback about a bill to dock striking teachers' pay and benefits came from who didn't show up at the hearing.

The Washington Senate Commerce & Labor Committee's three Democrats walked out before the hearing began. The Washington Education Association boycotted the discussion. The Washington Attorney General's Office plus two prominent education-lobbying organizations -- Stand For Children and the League of Education Voters -- were all invited to the hearing. They didn't show.

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch who is allied with the Senate's 25 Republicans, has introduced the bill to forbid providing pay or benefits to teachers when they are on strike. A teacher absent from class during a strike day would need a note from a licensed health provider to confirm being ill in order to be paid. The bill is silent on school districts adding an extra day at the end of the school year to make up for a strike day, something districts have been doing in cases like Tuesday's walkouts by Seattle, Issaquah and Mercer Island teachers (Crosscut's strike coverage is here). The Senate passed versions of Sheldon's bill in 2001 and 2003, but both efforts died in the House.

The WEA is orchestrating a series of rolling, one-day strikes across the state to call for cost-of-living raises and decreased teacher-student ratios in Grades K-12. Fifty-seven WEA locals have voted to participate in the one-day strikes, spread across several weeks.

Both Republican and Democratic budget proposals for 2015-2017 would give teachers cost-of-living raises, which have been suspended for the past several years. Democrats and Republicans are concentrating on reducing student-teacher ratios in Grades K-3 because money is not currently available to tackle the same problem in Grades 4-12, despite a 2014 voters initiative calling for those ratios to be addressed in all grades.

"There seems to be no teeth [in current laws] or penalties for going on strike. This bill tries to address that," said Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane and chair of the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee.

The Commerce & Labor Committee's three Democrats boycotted Tuesday's hearing because, they contended, it was a retaliatory "show trial" to punish teachers for the walkouts.

“This bill offers no solutions to our historic funding challenges and it is clearly only useful as a messaging tool," said the committee's ranking Democrat Sen. Bob Hasegawa of Seattle. "The message is that there is more will to attack teachers and their families than to come up with real solutions to our funding challenges." The other two boycotting Democrats were Sens. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, and Steve Conway, D-Tacoma.

WEA spokesman Rich Wood called the hearing "grandstanding" and a "sham."

Baumgartner said, "I was disappointed that the WEA, as the teachers' union, is not stepping forward today." Sheldon added: "When people are walking out of the committee, I don't see how that is very helpful."

Seven people, offices or organizations presented testimony Tuesday, including the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which offered technical information.

Two lobbying organizations representing superintendents and school boards were not happy about the rolling strikes. But they said the bill would be difficult to implement because of the red tape involved in calculating lost pay and benefits, finding enough qualified substitute teachers to conduct classes during a strike day, and figuring which teachers are absent due to the strike and which are absent for other reasons.

Another question is whether a teacher strike is legal or not.

An email from the attorney general's office noted that it issued an opinion in 2006 that no public employee has the right to strike. But there have been no requests for an updated opinion, nor are there court cases that directly address this issue, the attorney general's office said.

State officials said it is up to local school boards to file injunctions against strikes, because the state government has no role in dealing with a school district's contracts with teachers. Over the years, some districts have won injunctions against strikes from their county Superior Court judges, but none of the rulings have been appealed, according to testimony.

And an attorney general's opinion can be trumped by an appeals court ruling, said Dan Steele, representing the Washington Association of School Administrators. Steele also noted that the law that does not allow teachers' strikes but also does not expressively forbid them, either.

"The area is very muddy," Steele said.

Two organizations supported Sheldon's bill Tuesday -- the conservative Freedom Foundation and the free market-oriented think tank Washington Policy Center. They saw the rolling strikes as illegal and the teachers as breaching their contracts with their school districts.

"It's a luxury for employees to disrupt things without any consequences," said Jami Lund, a policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation.

"It is shocking that highly paid school managers are not fulfilling their roles by enforcing these contracts," said Liv Finne, a policy analyst for the Washington Policy Center. While districts could seek court injunctions to stop the one-day strikes, she said, "I have not seen one school superintendent do that."

Gary Smith, executive director of the Independent Business Association, testified as a private citizen in favor of the bill. Briarwood Elementary School fourth-grader Heather Gow of Issaquah testified in favor of the teachers strikes. "I want to support my teachers," she said. Her class has 28 students, and she believes it should be smaller.

So what are the bill's chances of becoming a law?

Committee chairman Baumgartner is a co-sponsor of the bill, as is Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. While it might pass the Senate, the Democratic-controlled House would likely kill the legislation.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who would have to sign the bill for it to become law, said: "I don't think it is going anywhere."


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8