Tonight's announcement that Seattle teachers will strike is the culmination of a month of pins and needles at our house. Would my daughter's first day of high school happen as planned on September 9? Turns out no. No, it will not. Maybe you can relate. Maybe tonight at dinner, like me, you're wondering: Wait, how strong is my opinion and what is it based on again?
I'll recap what it's been like for my family. First, we heard that the teachers (along with other school workers) had no contract for this coming year.
Next, we heard that the teachers were considering a strike.
Last Friday, we awoke to discover that the teachers did vote to strike if Seattle Public Schools does not negotiate a workable contract in time for the first day. We could see for ourselves, in that crappy cell-phone video that's now an inevitable part of public events, the frankly breathtaking spectacle of
5,0002,100 people voting yes for something—and the absolute blank space that followed the call for "no" votes. Then: eruption. No crowd quakes like that if they've seen something coming. Even they were stunned by their own unity. In a district that is deeply divided along economic and racial lines, where one school's conditions would be unrecognizable to the students at another school, these wildly divergent people had decided to disregard difference and simply agree.
The last e-mail I got before the strike from superintendent Larry Nyland came at 4:32 p.m. on Monday, Labor Day. He said I should start planning alternative child care for Wednesday, but that "Progress has been made on a number of items," and "the two sides will continue to bargain Monday and Tuesday." The e-mail did not mention anything about a lawsuit. But this morning I learned that Nyland began looking into suing the teachers' union on Monday night, to prevent them from striking. Nyland called an emergency school board meeting for tonight but he didn't tell me his side of that story in my inbox.
In the last month, I've grown accustomed to the discrepancy between what is happening and what my emails from Nyland have told me is happening. The e-mails have "Larry Nyland" written in cursive at the end.
Allow me a brief aside? The Cursive Nyland emails could form the basis of a literary mini-study. They have a bizarrely upbeat tone. "[W]e want the same thing," they say, going on to repeatedly reference "our progress together," as if SPS and the union were a couple strolling hand in hand around the grounds of Versailles on holiday, having a minor disagreement about where next to fill their only barely hungry bellies. The underlying situation is that they love each other, and they are beautiful together, and wherever they go, they will do it together, because they deserve no less.
"Our district has amazing educators, and many of our students simply need more time with their teachers," Cursive Nyland said on August 28. "Our teachers are doing a great job. ...Providing a 13% increase over three years would enable our teachers to be among the highest paid in the state, which they well deserve."
I told my daughter this morning that I believed she would not be going to school tomorrow, and that the teachers would be out on strike. She wants to go to school. She texted me in reply, simply, "What do you think?"
I don't know about you, but when a teenager asks your opinion, it is a rare occasion, and if that teenager is your child, it is just about the most precious occasion in your small life.
I decided that my obligation today was to offer her a researched opinion, so I spent the day reading up.
My knowledge up to then was probably similar to most other news-reading parents. In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the state's system for funding education is broken to the point of being unconstitutional, meaning that kids aren't getting even a "basic education" in this state.
Our educational system is considered literally criminal.
And by 2014, the state Legislature showed no progress toward fixing it. So the court held the state in contempt, warning that fines would begin to accrue in 2015.
To try to compel the Legislature to get moving, teachers in 65 districts—that's 65 districts—across Washington State held a one-day strike this May.
Like clockwork, the Legislature made no progress and the court intervened. In August, the court began fining the state $100,000 per day until the Legislature presents plans for reform.
Sounds dramatic, right?
"Compared with other solutions that have been floated, $100,000 a day is actually somewhat conservative," Slate reported. "When, in 1976, New Jersey was in a similar situation, the Supreme Court shut down the schools for eight days. The fruits of that conflict remain with New Jerseyites to this day, for the need to fund schools more fairly is what led New Jersey in 1976 to adopt a state income tax for the first time."
Washington does not have a state income tax. Rather, Washington has one of the most regressive and haphazard tax systems in the United States. If this system were your family's source of funding for paying your bills, you would be homeless, starving, uneducated, and physically and mentally ill. From 2009 to 2012, all income growth in Washington state accrued to the top 1 percent, according to this year's report from the national Economic Policy Institute. But there's more to the great achievements of Washington's 1 percent! Washington's 1 percent received 59.1 percent of all income growth from 1979 to 2007.
Yet we cannot fund "basic education."
I decided, today, to read the full text of the Washington State Supreme Court decision of 2012 (called the McCleary decision).
Since our students are looking for things to do this week, I recommend we all read it together.
It is a doozy.
I didn't know it had been this bad, and for this long. The decision tracks the underfunding of Washington public education back to the 1970s—and the court's, and other entities', continual attempts to get the Legislature to do something about it.
"On February 24, 2010," the decision reads, "the trial court entered written findings and conclusions and final judgment in favor of Plaintiffs. CP at 2866-2971. The court found the State to be out of compliance with its constitutional duty, concluding that '[s]tate funding is not ample, it is not stable, and it is not dependable.'"
More from the 2012 decision:
[T]he State has consistently failed to provide adequate funding for the program of basic education, including funding for essential operational costs such as utilities and transportation. To fill this gap in funding, local districts have been forced to turn increasingly to excess levies, placing them on the same unstable financial foundation as the schools in Seattle School District. ...
[W]e rejected special excess levies as "dependable and regular" not only because they are subject to the whim of the electorate, but also because they are too variable insofar as levies depend on the assessed valuation of taxable real property at the local level. ...Districts with high property values are able to raise more levy dollars than districts with low property values, thus affecting the equity of a statewide system. Conversely, property-poor districts, even if they maximize their local levy capacity, will often fall short of funding a constitutionally adequate education. All local-level funding, whether by levy or otherwise, suffers from this same infirmity. ...
Another state legislator and member of the Basic Education Finance Task Force summed it up this way: “[T]here’s no relationship between what we say we want a K-12 system to deliver and the mechanism that we
use to determine the resources that we fund the system with.”
Throughout, the document describes the inactions of the state in 40 years to make updates as simple as accommodating for increasing fuel prices in calculating transportation costs, while also failing to make complex, comprehensive changes—or making them, and then immediately or gradually undoing them, handing out money one year and taking it away the next, placing restrictions then adding clauses that erase restrictions.
This is not even the first time the court has declared Washington State's educational funding system unconstitutional. It happened in 1975, too.
The Legislature’s unwillingness to comply with the McCleary decision has left teachers—not to mention their schools—falling behind economically, year after year. These phrases echo throughout that decision:
• "essentially put up the scaffolding for a new funding mechanism but left the finishings for a later day"
• "the legislature enacted several minor reforms"
• "tinkering slightly"
• "Despite the committee's recommendations, no major funding reforms occurred." (That one is about recommendations made after a 1991 teacher strike pushed the issue. When the city's teachers get up in arms, the state responds.)
• "legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform"
• "Yet, no major reforms realized." (A tiny poem, really.)
On two separate occasions, the court—like Wile E. Coyote undone by the cunning Road Runner, "expressed confidence that the legislature would fill in the details consistent with its constitutional duty."
I'll encourage my daughter to read divergent news sources: The Stranger and the Seattle Times, chiefly. (That Seattle Times editorial would be gobsmacking if almost all its editorials didn't practice the equal-opportunity smacking of gob.)
I'll encourage her to notice that the teachers are not only striking for pay but also to preserve recess, to keep standardized testing from dominating students' lives, to ensure that poor kids aren't left even further behind than they are already, to fight for simply adequate rather than hugely overcrowded and undermaintained facilities, to consider transportation reforms, and to institute programs addressing the racial achievement gap at all schools rather than only some.
Maybe most of all, I'll encourage her to notice that inaction—ignoring a problem—will get you nowhere. And I'll continue to consider what I, and we as parents, can do to help push the Legislature, too. We can start, I think, with vociferously supporting this teachers strike as long as it continues.
I'm going to continue forwarding my 14-year-old the emails that arrive from Cursive Nyland. When he writes, "The district is optimistic an agreement can be reached, and students can start the school year on time," I hope that despite the not-insignificant inconvenience presented by a strike, my daughter will know that starting the school year on time is a paltry goal, and we, as parents, have bigger ones.
This morning I asked other parents to tell me what they think on Facebook. I wrote, simply, "To my fellow parents of Seattle public school students: your thoughts on the potential strike and the superintendent's intention to try to sue the union to block it and kill the strike so that school starts on time tomorrow? I may write about it."
Every parent who responded supported the union. So here they are, in their own voices:
Mikala Woodward: "13 years in as a public school parent, youngest child supposed to start high school tomorrow. A strike would be a bummer for him, for sure — the waiting has already gone on way too long. But the teacher's concerns are totally valid, glad they are organizing so well to fight for decent pay and better working conditions. Will be out there with them if I can swing it. I do think the school day needs to be lengthened — ours is half an hour shorter than surrounding districts due to a long ago levy failure and it's time to get that half hour back — with pay, of course. As usual, I see that the district is in a tough financial position — because our legislature has totally failed to perform its paramount duty (don't get me started on THAT clusterfuck) — and as usual they have done a shitty job of working with the teachers to figure out how to deal with those budget pressures. In short: exasperated, frustrated, exhausted, outraged by the travesty that is school funding in this state — as I have been for more than a decade — and totally behind the teachers."
Julie Alexander: "Kids first means teachers first. We have so far to go. The unions demands are tiny. I am with the teachers and the union all the way."
Racheal Lynn Huffman: "As a parent and of a child with ASD, I am on the teachers side. These requests are not unreasonable. Happy teachers equal happy and eager students. I want the best of the best teaching my child and the fact that the district cannot agree to pay what they all deserve is astounding to me. If the district will not be a viable advocate for the teachers by agreeing to terms AND by suing them, then who will?! I will gladly pay this in my taxes, donate, whatever it takes AND I am low income."
Julie Ann McKay: "No! We can not let them block the Union."
Linda Thomas: "Yes strike. Teachers are important, education is important we don't value either enough. As an adjunct college instructor without job security or adequate salary, etc., etc., etc., I would like to see anyone in the profession get the respect so deserved and long overdue. Why don't landlords give special consideration to teachers? Why doesn't the state insure Teachers can afford to live in the district where they teach?"
Paul Mullins: "all of the above. Just lending my support and my agreement that the TIMES is gonna throw stank on the teachers."
Susanna Bluhm Callahan: "I support the teachers 100%."
Michael Thomas: "I'm with the teachers: give them the resources and fair compensation they need, and jettison the testing models that came about with 'No Child Left Behind' and 'Common Core'. Seattle Schools budgets $35 Million for transportation and another $96 Million in support, operations and utilities. On transportation, a healthy percentage of those resources are duplicated by Metro. Why don't students get free Metro passes? That could be a better utilization of resources and funds, reducing the need for transportation dollars. On utilities: has the district negotiated services-at-cost from our public utilities?"
Amanda Bakke: "Longer school day without recess (or, one 15-minute recess for an elemenatary school-ager). The district is so out of line."
Sean Kinney: "Sean Kinney I might be one of a handful of people that watch the School Board meetings on cable. I don't see parents, as a constituency, have much leverage like the SEA has (obviously), and it's pretty clear that the SEA and parents are unified in their concerns [recess, student discipline, assistant/substitute pay, teacher pay, testing regimes etc]. I actually hope there is a strike, and hope eventually that this may result in a fresh new batch of Board members who reject our neoliberal notions."
This post has been updated.