Wednesday was supposed to be the first day of school for students at Seattle Public Schools (SPS), but disagreements between the district and the Seattle Education Association (SEA) over issues such as teacher compensation and a new special education proposal led 95% of the union’s voting members to authorize a strike. 

According to an email, the union expects more than 6,000 educators at picket lines at SPS buildings across the city. And though union reps say they would much rather be in the classroom, they’ll hold the line until they reach an appropriate agreement.

The Demands

Pay and a change to special education programming remain the major sticking points in negotiations. On its website, the union claims that the district low-balled them by only offering a guaranteed cost-of-living raise over the next two years. In an email, the union claimed the district could afford higher wages for teachers, pointing to $70 million in a rainy day fund and $160 million in the district's “ending fund balance,” which feeds its unrestricted dollars into the reserve fund.

No one from the district would speak on the record about whether SPS could realistically fund the union's request with available state resources.

The union also wants to keep or in some cases lower the current teacher-to-student ratios in special education classes, but the district wants to get rid of caps in favor of a calculation involving “total student service need.” In one email from union leadership to membership, the union claimed the district’s proposal could increase caseloads for special education teachers by 50%. 

Who’s to Blame? 

The district did not respond to specific questions about its budget or the new special education proposals. A spokesperson said in an email that the district's proposals “aligned” with its “instructional philosophy” that “puts students first, creates inclusive learning spaces, and provides educators and staff with generous compensation, including professional development, career opportunities and benefits.”

The union obviously disagreed with that assessment, and so last Wednesday its leadership threatened to strike if the two parties couldn’t reach a tentative agreement. Over the weekend, the district expressed concern that its failure to meet teacher demands might delay the first day of school for students, and so it asked the union not to strike and instead return to work while the bargaining unit negotiated. The union declined.

In a subsequent email to SPS families, the district shamed the union for not giving up the strike in exchange for nothing. 

“Starting school on Wednesday is what is best for our students. We understand this uncertainty about a delay is difficult and unsettling for our students, staff, and families. We hope that SEA will reconsider this MOU [memorandum of understanding] and sign it before Tuesday,” the email read. 

In an email on Tuesday afternoon, the district canceled school. 

Teachers Hold the Line for Students

But plenty of community members argue that the district drove the teachers to strike. As of early Tuesday afternoon, over 1,000 people signed a letter asking the district to meet the teachers' demands:

A strike is inconvenient for everyone. Katie Schaber, an SPS parent, said the strike will throw a wrench in their child care plans, but she supports the teachers’ action anyway because she worries that the district’s proposal will negatively impact both students and teachers. 

“I’m really grateful that teachers are holding the line for students. They’re doing this because they care,” she said. 

Schaber's daughter is a fourth-grader enrolled in the district's “access” program, which means her needs meet the the standard for “moderate to intensive academic and functional needs.” Right now, she learns in a classroom with one teacher per 10 elementary students who have the same level of needs. 

Under the new proposal, the district would not segregate classes for different needs, nor would they apply specific caps for teacher-student ratios. Instead, the district proposed a calculation of “teacher workload based on total student service need.” The district did not clarify when I asked. 

Schaber said that her student experiences occasional “outbursts” and sometimes runs away. Adding more students with more diverse needs to classrooms may make those types of situations more difficult to manage, she said.

An Upstream Problem

Another SPS parent, Summer Stinson, the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute and former director of Washington’s Paramount Duty, also supports the strike effort. She called the teachers union a last line of defense for students, who face a larger issue that starts much further upstream: the State Legislature’s failure to fully fund education. 

The state is obligated to pay for K-12 education, but Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-Bellevue) argues that the state currently fails to calculate the true cost of education. 

To determine funding amounts, the state sets standards based on a prototypical school and student headcount. School districts whose needs exceed those of the prototypical school–school districts like Seattle–can collect additional money through levies. But they can only collect so much per student, and SPS has already hit its cap. The pandemic cut headcounts at schools, and thus funding, but it increased the need, Thai said. 

Though no one would talk on the record, Thai said the district could be holding out due to a lack of funding, or there could be a breakdown in communication, or the district could just be acting like a bunch of “assholes.”

As a former Bellevue School District president, she said that there should be no misunderstanding between the union and the district about budget. In other words, if the teachers are truly asking for something beyond the district’s financial capacity, then the district is not being transparent about the budget.

“I truly believe that when teachers go on strike, they have good reason to,” Thai said.