Schools and Politics: A Fall Strike Pondered

Summary: What are the issues involved in the Tacoma, Washington, teachers’ strike?

Greetings those reading here. School has started, or has in most places, the most notable exception being communities where teachers have gone on strike. Tacoma, Washington, is one of those. Both the casual observer and parents who struggle in the current economic downturn are likely to criticize the teachers’ action. I also would question the timing of this work stoppage, during a serious economic downturn, even though it is apparently not about money. When I think more deeply on this incident, and tune in to various news reports to learn more, I am left with numerous questions that reflect my own ignorance of the specifics in the Tacoma conflict, but also illuminate the kinds of dynamics that inhabit a multitude of school districts, and in turn some of the issues I’ve addressed in previous blogs.

I will not claim to have made an exhaustive search of the media for details. Perhaps in the Tacoma media the coverage is much more extensive than in the Seattle media. I have read a couple of articles from the Seattle papers, but it wasn’t until an Tacoma teacher was interviewed on a morning talk show today that I found better insight into the core issues, for teachers, at least, and even then my picture was poorly fleshed out. Parenthetically here, I am reminded that the print media, in the rush to publish on deadline, often distort or dilute the truth in news items I happen to know something about, so it is a reminder to read with caution stories about which I know little.

If I got it right, the Tacoma school administration wants the prerogative to involuntarily transfer teachers between schools at administration direction. The implication so far is that the teacher would have no say in the matter. It is true in the private market that one does what the boss says to do if one wants to keep a job (a lot of voters and parents watching this particular conflict know that personally), and it is also true that forward looking admin legitimately may want to transfer quality teachers into more highly challenged schools. On the other hand there are also strong undercurrents in the standoff of teachers’ professional identity, control of their immediate professional life, and more broadly whether they are to be simply cogs in a system (and therefore arguably poorer teachers) or professionals who help guide the course of their schools. (See previous Schools and Politics postings).

So, while the Tacoma school administration may have a legitimate intent in asserting the right to transfer, by their approach they may undercut the very goal they seek — better teaching for kids — by alienating those same teachers and failing to recognize that their professional, not labor, identity is crucial to school improvement.

Is the Tacoma admin stance top/down, in your face, hierarchically inspired, or have they made appropriate overtures only to be rebuffed by an unreasonable teachers’ union? Has a once promising dialogue broken down, or never begun in earnest by either or both sides in the first place? Has admin made concessions, offered some controls against the whim of administrators? Etc. I don’t know, but would like to know before I can fully evaluate the conflict.

The courts are now involved, and the teachers have been ordered back to work, apparently as a matter of law, but even that seems murky in my reading of it, admittedly a less informed perspective than I prefer. (But who the bless finds the time to investigate thoroughly everything that interests them?) In this specific case I raise questions based on my understanding of similar dynamics I have seen and experienced.

If I understand the argument, public employees are enjoined from striking because they are regarded as essential public servants, similar to fire fighters and police. That’s a stretch to lump all together, it seems to me, for while teachers are essential, they do not represent an emergent public interest the way fire fighters and police do. Though I am probably a bit paranoid on this issue, I wonder to what extent there are echoes in such injunctions of the long term struggle of labor against capital, such as those I’ve discussed earlier. On one hand, it is in the complex interest of bosses, or so it is sometimes thought, to have their commands followed to the letter, and on the other the law itself has a tendency to reflect the perceived interests of the powerful and wealthy against those who serve under them, because power influences political and legal decisions, and money buys the desired results in legislative action.

Of course, such realities have led to the rise of unions, who now compete in the legislative and political market place with their own collective monies, and therefore arguably contribute to something of a standoff in which school structures ossify. Nonetheless, though progress has been made over the last 100+ years, despite recent setbacks, the struggle for some kind of equity for the teacher cum professional, as well as the laborer cum human continues to be uphill.

Thus, this struggle gets played out in Tacoma, in context of a rich history, as a strong undercurrent in the question of transfers between schools.

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