Schools and Politics: Seattle Teachers Strike and Aim to Be Players

Summary: The Seattle Teachers’ strike has ended with advances in salary and working conditions, but also in agreements that address quality of schooling for kids, such as disproportionate discipline for kids of color and, in general, suspension as a tool of discipline. Supportive parents appear to be lining up to carry the school funding battle to the Washington State Legislature in Olympia.

The Seattle teachers’ strike of 2015 has ended without great bombast and of short duration, amid claims of success by teachers. Perhaps more portentously, school reopens with a budding informal alliance of parents and teachers, apparently forged in mutual wariness of the impact an incessant testing culture has had on schools and Seattle kids.

My first thought was to join the teachers on the picket line. The juices were running. I, the old war horse in the starting gate.

The blood boils in the school trenches, as I remember well. Frustrations are pent up. Teachers who in their character are helpers and accept responsibility for their students frequently feel overwhelmed by too many needs of too many kids. Many hours of uncompensated time are the norm. Meanwhile, outsiders who have less grasp of the realities of working with kids have taken the political reins, ignore and denigrate the professionalism of teaching staff, and dictate the structure of instruction around the overmuch testing. Buying power of salary has been eroded by year after year of suspended cost of living pay increases, and teacher pay falls further behind steadily increasing private sector salaries for similar levels of education. Teachers can’t help but feel their good natured caring for the welfare of kids is taken advantage of by those resistant to the fiscal changes needed to pay them a fair wage. There are rejoinders, some with merit, to each of these articles, but at some point, enough is enough, and feisty local teachers (don’t we want passionate folks teaching our kids?) such as those in Seattle go on strike.

One conservative commentator  carped that “it is illegal for teachers to strike” and opined that there was “no need”, now that the Court has mandated that the legislature get its educational fiscal house in order. She clearly has never worked in schools nor understands the utility of political pressure on the legislature that the uptick in teacher salaries represents.

There were agreements in the strike that get to the heart of what is good for kids. Against the backdrop of kids of color facing suspension at a significantly higher rate than white kids, there will now be training aimed at such “disproportionate” discipline. Hopefully, one outcome will be effective alternatives to excluding kids from school, by use of remedial, still consequential channels. The use of testing will be reviewed by joint administration/teacher committee.

Other elements of the agreement appear at first blush to benefit teachers and staff, but scrutinized more closely also in the longer run benefit students. Caseloads for specialists that serve specific disabled populations will have an upper limit, which should allow for better service for those kids, as mandated by federal law.

Teachers won significant across the board pay increases, on top of recent state concessions on cost of living increases, both boosts quite remarkable from the point of view of this retiree who saw nothing remotely near such an increase in the last ten to fifteen years of his career. My wife, also a retired educator, jokes that we should sue for back pay. No doubt the wall crumbled some in the face of the recent Supreme Court ruling holding the legislature in contempt for inadequate funding of public schools, and the partial increase in funding recently granted by the legislature.

In an environment where 47% of teachers leave teaching within five years, bolstered salaries may help, and in turn help kids who are ultimately those who suffer from teacher turnover and a teaching cadre short on experience.

Perhaps most controversially, testing results will no longer play a role in the evaluation of teachers, a matter of great sensitivity to those in the classroom. Some have criticized “teaching to the test” as detrimental to broader and deeper student learning, though a focus on such evaluation has been one pillar of a conservative and business push for school reform.

I am particularly pleased to see the Seattle Teachers’ Union seize this day, and to do it in a way that the parent community appears to embrace, or even to take inspiration. Parents appear to be organizing to carry the political battle to the legislature for better school funding.

This latter development, if it sustains and grows, is the most hopeful. In the end, it is not only teachers’ salaries that need buoyancy, but the strategic concentration of more adults in schools in a position to buoy kids at risk. For example, as reported by Dale Russakoff in her recent book The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, and profiled on NPR, certain public charter schools in Newark, New Jersey, outperform their companion district schools by placing two certificated teachers in each classroom K-3. In addition, three social workers minister to the psychological needs of approximately 520 kids in the same school, including weekly therapy sessions for around 70 kids. Moreover, a “dean of student and family engagement” oversees efforts to impact kids whose lives outside of school negatively impact school progress. In this particular school, run by KIPP charter schools, the dean worked to identify adults in the lives of such kids who might take personal responsibility for their school success, thereby leveraging supportive adults in kid lives outside of schools.

The net result has been superior academic progress with troubled and impoverished students than managed by comparable regular district schools, which have not been able to marshal their funding as effectively.

There is no apparent and necessary reason why the principles effective in Newark charters would not apply in Seattle Public Schools, with efficiencies and increased funding.

Back to the Seattle schools strike with a word about the Seattle Schools administration. I’ve been on the picket lines a couple of times. In each case stories were rife on the streets of the obduracy and skin-flintiness of the school district, and of the “rainy day” fund that was flush, but considered inviolable as a means to increase salaries. The latter may or may not have been true, but I cite the thread of conversation as evidence of a prospective ill will between teachers and the “head shed.”

Interestingly, little such animosity surfaced in reports I encountered of the strike. In fact, principals and superintendents alike, former teachers themselves, at base should have sympathy for striking teachers, even if they in their fiduciary positions can’t walk the line themselves. That sympathy, difficult to discern in my personal experience of teacher strikes except in building level administrators, present here may have played a role in the relatively quick settlement. So a tentative hats off to the central district administration, which after all has to have to money to feed the settlement.

So it’s back to school. Kids see their friends, belatedly. Parents, even supportive, sigh relief at not having to scramble each day for day care, and teachers, many veterans like myself, feel more natural back in their traces, facing kids, and carrying on their work. The adrenaline ebbs, with maybe some withdrawal pangs salved by the inevitable stories of the picket lines. Soon the rhythm of schools takes over, and we head more normally into the fall. It will be Thanksgiving before we know it.

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