Politics & Government

Teachers unions staging strikes to oppose education proposals in the Legislature

Teachers unions throughout the state are staging one-day strikes to protest lawmakers’ plans to alter a class-size initiative voters passed last fall and to oppose education policies floated by the Republican-controlled state Senate.

According to a news release from the statewide teachers union, 2,600 teachers in eight districts throughout the state have voted to stage one-day walkouts during the final days of the legislative session, scheduled to end April 26. More local unions may decide to join the strikes soon, according to the release from the Washington Education Association.

WEA spokesman Rich Wood said that schools will shut down for the day in those districts where the unions have decided to go on strike. As of midday Friday, no teachers unions in Pierce or Thurston counties had voted to stage a one-day strike, but a couple said they were considering the option.

Besides protesting legislative plans to scale back Initiative 1351, the teachers object to proposals that would mandate the use of statewide testing data in teacher and principal evaluations and Senate plans for pay and benefits that they say are insufficient.

Teachers in the Arlington, Lakewood (Snohomish County) and Stanwood-Camano districts have planned strikes for April 22, while Bellingham and Ferndale teachers have decided to strike April 24.

Teachers in Mount Vernon, Blaine and Sedro-Woolley have approved strikes but hadn’t decided on when they would stage them, according to the WEA.

Wood said most of the local teachers unions that voted to strike are looking to remind lawmakers how debates over budgets and legislation affect teachers — and students — in the classroom.

Shirley Potter, president of the Bellingham Education Association, said her members think lawmakers “need a heads-up.”

“We are not happy with the way funding is done for education, and that goes for everyone in our district,” Potter said. “This isn’t about any district; this is about the Legislature playing around with our compensation, benefits, class size and evaluations.”

Potter said the Bellingham district will have to use a snow day to compensate for the day that teachers are out on strike. “We’ll have to make it up,” she said.

Tacoma Education Association President Angel Morton said Friday that the rolling walkout “isn’t in the works for us right now.” But she didn’t rule it out.

She said she is reaching out to her members to see how they want to respond to proposals from Olympia.

The planned job action will occur in the midst of the WEA’s representative assembly meeting, set for April 23-25.

On the final day of the assembly, WEA delegates plan to assemble for a rally on the steps of the Capitol, and they’re inviting teachers statewide to join them.

Morton said teachers are frustrated that more demands are being put on their time to collect and input data, which leaves them less time for teaching.

She named several legislative proposals as “hot buttons” for teachers. Among them: class size, pay, changes to health care plans and a proposal to remove local bargaining rights on issues including supplemental pay for added time and responsibility.

Pam Kruse, president of the union that represents teachers in the Franklin Pierce School District just outside Tacoma, said Friday that her members are also contemplating some kind of action.

“But we haven’t made a final decision what that action will be,” she added.

She did say the union members plan to wave signs to get their message out and that they’ll also send a group to the WEA rally April 25.

“My members are tired of writing postcards (to lawmakers),” Kruse said. “We are pushing hard.”

State lawmakers are under a court order to fully fund K-12 education by 2018, following the state Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in the McCleary education-funding case. The court held the state in contempt last year over the Legislature’s failure to come up with a long-term education funding plan and promised sanctions if substantial progress isn’t made in 2015.

The state House, the state Senate and the Governor’s Office have each proposed spending at least $1.3 billion to meet some demands of the McCleary decision, such as funding all-day kindergarten and lowering class size in kindergarten through third grade.

But neither chamber of the Legislature is proposing to fully fund Initiative 1351, which voters passed in November to reduce class sizes in all grades. Instead, lawmakers are looking to amend the initiative so it would mandate reduced class sizes only in grades K-3, the same class-size reductions that also are required under McCleary.

If funded, the class-size reductions required by I-1351 would cost the state $2 billion over the next two years, and nearly $4 billion more in the state’s 2017-19 budget cycle.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said Friday that he doesn’t think that teachers striking will change lawmakers’ opinions on taxes or their support of education policies. He said he’s still optimistic that lawmakers can adjourn on time with a new two-year budget by the session’s scheduled end date of April 26 — even if teachers show up on the Capitol lawn that Saturday.

“I’m more concerned about them striking on Friday, and leaving schools and kids without teachers,” Schoesler said. “Their ability to express their First Amendment rights on their own time is constitutionally protected, but if they walk out of a classroom, shame on them.”

State Superintendent Randy Dorn, who leads the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, issued a written statement calling the walkouts “the wrong approach,” noting such an action “creates chaos in families that will need to arrange for child care.”

Dorn added that lawmakers in recent days had public hearings on proposals to boost state funding of teacher salaries and are addressing some of teachers’ concerns.

“I question why they are walking out,” Dorn’s statement said.

A 2006 opinion by the state Attorney General’s Office found that state and local public employees have no legally protected right to strike, but state law establishes no specific penalties for doing so.

This is not the first time that teachers unions in Washington have organized strikes over legislative proposals rather than contract negotiations.

In 1990, the WEA announced a one-day strike in which more than 25,000 teachers statewide either skipped work, left early or held rallies to argue for higher salaries and smaller class sizes, according to “Booth Who?,” a biography of Gov. Booth Gardner by John C. Hughes.

The next year, more than 20,000 teachers statewide went on an extended strike while lawmakers were in session. During the strike, about 13,000 teachers rallied at the Capitol seeking better raises and higher school funding, causing then-governor Gardner to send lawmakers home for a seven-week “cooling off” period between legislative sessions.

More recently, teachers unions staged strikes in 1999 to protest salary levels, holding several rallies at the Capitol to ask for a 15 percent pay raise. That year, teachers in more than 27 school districts staged one-day strikes as lawmakers entered the final days of their scheduled legislative session.

Wood, the WEA spokesman, said local teachers unions will decide how big the protest gets this year.

“What I can tell you is the level of concern is as high as it has been in the past in those cases,” Wood said Friday.