Amid budget cuts and poor conditions, teachers’ unions fight back


On September 7, some 50,000 Seattle students should have had their first day of school. However, a strike called by the Seattle Education Association (SEA) has pushed back the start date for Seattle Public Schools (SPS) – the largest school district in Washington state – by one week to September 14.

According to the SEA proposals, the main points of contention that led to the strike included insufficient pay and an unmanageable workload for paraprofessionals. The proposal also underlines a demand for increased multilingual support in schools and more reasonable pupil/staff ratios.

“I am on strike because supporting Individual Education Program students is important to me. Appropriate housing means there are plenty of teaching assistants, fair workloads, and workloads for special education teachers,” shared Hazel Koons, math teacher at Interagency High School in Seattle, on the picket lines.

The strike was officially suspended on Tuesday, September 13, due to a tentative agreement reached between the SEA and the SPS. Formal ratification of the new contract followed with a vote on September 19; the results were announced on September 20.

Educator strikes take hold in Washington state

However, the SEA was not the only teachers’ union to strike this school season, and it likely won’t be the last.

Prior to the SEA strike, another Washington state teachers’ union, the Kent Education Association (KEA), was also on strike for 15 days before reaching a tentative agreement with the district. Similar to SPS District and other school districts along the state’s I-5 corridor, Kent School District (KSD) is also facing declining enrollment despite being one of the largest districts of Washington State. The decline is due to the rising cost of living and the ability to work from home, which is pushing families to seek greener pastures in more affordable parts of the state.

Likewise, KEA’s demands echoed those of SEA, with union negotiations focusing primarily on wage increases and more practical class sizes, according to an interview between KEA union vice president Layla Jones and Seattle weather.

“There is a shortage of teachers across the country and people are leaving the profession,” Jones said. Seattle weather. “It’s scary that there aren’t enough teachers coming to replace those who leave. We need competitive compensation to retain the teachers we have and recruit new ones.

Beyond Seattle and Kent, the Eatonville Education Association (EEA) and Ridgefield Education Association (REA) also went on strike, the latter ending on September 18 after the union reached a tentative agreement with the school district.

Policy pundits like former Washington Treasurer Jim McIntire have long pointed to the state’s wildly regressive tax structure as a key reason for funding shortfalls in public services like public education. In Washington, the state is required to provide school districts with public funds for “basic education.” However, the amount of funding is based on the legislature’s assumption of what districts will need, leading to it being insufficient for many school districts, especially those with large enrollments and high overhead. When funding provided by the legislature does not fully cover a district’s costs, districts turn to levies and bonds to fill the gap, but they cannot always make up the difference.

In an open letter regarding the SEA strike to members of the SPS community, school board principal Lisa Rivera-Smith highlights this issue of current and future funding challenges.

“Perhaps the real moral of this story is that we need our state legislators and our education official to recognize the impossible situation Seattle finds itself in,” Rivera-Swith wrote. “We cannot get the water we need to live from the rocks they gave us.”

Look beyond Washington

Outside Evergreen State, Ohio, the Columbus Education Association (CEA) has made headlines for calling a strike for the first time in 47 years after the district pulled out of the bargaining table. , leaving the teachers with a final offer they deemed unsatisfactory.

“The schools in the city of Columbus are over 100 years old, and meanwhile they have been very slow over the last quarter century to work on repairing and repairing these old buildings. Now there have been new buildings, but it’s sad that in 2022 we still have so many buildings that don’t have working air conditioning, vermin issues, poor plumbing and lead paint” , deplores Regina Fuentes, spokesperson for the CEA. . Fuentes is a seasoned teacher, having taught for Columbus City Schools (CCS) for 24 years and counting, and is a district graduate herself.

According to NBC4 Columbus, three CCS schools — Columbus Alternative High School, Hubbard Elementary School and Mifflin Middle School — will operate without centralized air conditioning in their buildings this year.

However, in response to those concerns, school district officials like Columbus City Schools Board President Jennifer Adair paint a different picture.

“We offered generous compensation for teachers and provisions that would have a positive impact on classrooms. Our offer also addressed concerns raised by CEA during the negotiation process,” Adair shared with The Despatch of Columbus.

In the end, the strike was relatively short – just five days – but fruitful for the CEA.

“[The district] had to come back to the table. This time we went well into the night, 2pm trading. We still had 10 outstanding issues to discuss, and of the 10 things we needed to sort out, we won nine,” Fuentes shares.

Fuentes argues that the strike has always been about and for CCS students. “In our case, as teachers, our working conditions are the learning conditions of the students,” Fuentes explains.

Teacher shortages and strikes

Today, the K-12 public education landscape in the United States faces the challenge of mitigating both an increase in strikes and what is being called a national teacher shortage, all amid the fallout of an ongoing pandemic.

Historically, events, like World War II, that worsened the material conditions of the working class often led to nationwide waves of strikes for teachers and other professions. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different, having changed many long-held assumptions about public education in the United States as bedrooms have become classrooms and working-from-home parents have secured a place in the classroom. first place for the education of their child. Facing unprecedented levels of stress, teachers seeking change had two options: strike or leave the profession. According to a 2021 RAND report, almost a quarter of teachers said they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020-21 school year.

“In the past, teachers went on strike. Now they tend to leave the profession for good rather than strike. The recent teacher shortage is a type of modern strike. You determine that the profession is simply not worth fighting for and you leave,” writes a Reddit user on the r/Teachers page.

The exact extent of teacher shortages in the United States is difficult to quantify due to their perennial nature and regional variance, but an August 2022 paper published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute reasonably estimates prudent at least 36,000 vacancies in conjunction with at least 163,000 occupied positions. by unskilled people. The notable trends in this paper point to the most dramatic concentration of teacher vacancies in the South, a region where teacher unions have traditionally held less power.

Perhaps what is happening today is a delayed exodus. Whatever it is called, it affects school districts across the country. “[Teachers leaving the profession is] a major problem. It’s the No. 1 problem for superintendents,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Although not quite the same thing, teacher strikes and shortages lead to many of the same problems, such as unsupervised and unfed children and adolescents, increased youth crime underage, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Urban Economics, and ultimately—students are missing out on their education. Even so, in the current climate, they both seem more inevitable than ever.

“We have to show [the school districts] that, if we are in fact creating the public citizens of tomorrow, then sometimes you have to rule the roost and you have to fight,” Fuentes says.


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