On one block of the Central District last Thursday: dozens of teachers wearing bright-red Seattle Education Association T-shirts, hoisting “On Strike” and “Fair Contract Now” signs, singing and chanting and playing conga drums as passing cars honked their horns.
On another: an equally passionate gathering of teachers, students, and parents at Summit Sierra—one of Seattle’s first-ever public charter schools—wearing bright-blue “Keep Our Schools Open” T-shirts, toting hand-drawn “Don’t Close My School” and “I <3 My School” signs, and frequently breaking into a raucous refrain: “SAVE OUR SCHOOLS! SAVE OUR SCHOOLS!”
Which is, more or less, what everyone is saying. From the teachers’ union to the Seattle Public School District, from the Washington State Charter Schools Association to the state Supreme Court: Save. Our. Schools.
It’s been a tumultuous few weeks for public education, to say the very least, and the news is giving us whiplash. Rallies, picket lines, 14-hour bargaining days, and monumental Supreme Court decisions are all making national headlines as some of the most fraught and long-standing debates in public education descend en masse on the state of Washington. The Seattle teachers’ union went on strike over contract issues for the first time in three decades, delaying the start of the new school year by more than a week; the state Supreme Court ruled Washington’s nascent charter-school law unconstitutional, effectively pulling public funding from the nine charters around the state that just opened their doors; and the state legislature is getting penalized $100,000 per day until it passes an education budget in line with the 2012 decision that condemned it for systematically underfunding public schools.
It’s a mess. But for a lot of educators, it’s pivotal. Despite plenty of frustration to go around, today’s mayhem does seem to have reached a fever pitch—and right now, teachers’ unions have the high note.
“I think the union has finally found its stride with the membership in a way it hadn’t previously,” said Laura Lehni, a history teacher at Washington Middle School and member of the SEA’s bargaining team, as passersby on South Jackson Street honked and cheered for the striking teachers last week. “The people you see out here on the lines, you probably wouldn’t have seen in years past. Now we’re seeing that educators have had enough. We’re not going to bend over for the district any more.”
And now that the SEA has “some great leadership” working in tandem with leaders at the Washington Education Association and the National Education Association, said Lehni, that sense of empowerment is palpable. Seattle’s teachers are exhausted, “and when the district says, ‘We’re gonna add just a little bit more to your plate, just one more thing, just one extra thing,’ ” she said, “it’s now at a point where we’re fighting for respect. I think that’s where unions have really come into place.”
The place the union now holds is a powerful one. Lengthy negotiations between the SEA and the school district culminated in an all-night session Monday night and a tentative deal Tuesday morning that gives teachers pay increases of 9.5 percent over three years along with 4.8 percent cost-of-living increases over two years. Also in the deal, the district will no longer use test scores to evaluate teachers, among many other district concessions concerning everything from recess time to teacher-aide pay.
“Let’s be clear,” union bargaining chair Phylllis Campano told the Seattle TimesTuesday night, “We won the fight on this contract agreement.”
The union’s wide support was also evident at the City Council (councilmembers Nick Licata, John Okamoto, and Kshama Sawant expressed their support for teachers’ right to strike in a letter to the district; Sawant organized a community meeting to support the SEA; and the Council declared this week Seattle Educators Week); from most candidates running for School Board; and in the community. On Monday, a Facebook event called on residents to unsubscribe from The Seattle Times, given what the event’s creator called the paper’s “pathetic coverage of the Seattle teachers strike. [ . . . ] Join parents & supporters as we cancel our subscriptions on the same day.”
Then, on a larger scale, there are the courts: Both the McCleary decision and the decision that could cripple the state’s charter schools have the support of the Washington Education Association—a plaintiff in both cases. The WEA argues that charter schools “siphon” public funds from traditional public schools; and with a teaching force that’s largely non-union, charter schools have been seen by many labor activists as a means to weaken teachers’ unions overall.
Regarding the funding charge, charter supporters argue that that’s not the case. There are other entities without elected boards that receive public funding, such as the state’s tribal schools and the Running Start program—a program that allows 11th and 12th graders to get credit for community-college courses—plus a slew of other complexities in the charter law that could still be debated in court. On Friday, the Supreme Court was asked to reconsider its ruling, and Thomas Franta, CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, said his group aims to do everything it can, including fundraise, to keep the state’s charters open this school year and beyond. “We think that within the current state budget there are ample opportunities to fund public charter schools with public dollars,” he said.
Public charter schools, for Franta, provide “an opportunity to let great educators educate. They have a meaningful say in what they’re doing in their day, and they use that to the advantage of the students they serve.”
Although that language sounds a lot like what Seattle teachers are asking for right now—having a meaningful say—his association remains “totally agnostic” when it comes to teachers’ unions and their relationship to good teaching. In his experience as a charter-school authorizer in New York state, he said, the presence of a teachers’ union “wasn’t the difference-maker” when it came to great schools. “It was: Was the focus rightly on the kids where it belongs? Were the resources going to the classroom?”
Aubree Gomez, a math teacher at Summit Sierra who was at Thursday’s pro-charter rally, taught in Seattle public schools for two and a half years before coming to Summit. She was an SEA member while a Seattle public-school teacher, she said, but it doesn’t feel like a teachers’ union would be necessary here. “I don’t know why we would need one, per se,” she said through the din of charter-school students and supporters cheering and clapping. “We all feel equally heard. I feel more heard than I’ve ever felt in the past.”
Which, again, sounds a lot like what Seattle teachers are asking for.
“I think people have turned to charter schools because public schools haven’t been able to support the needs of their kids,” said the SEA’s Lehni. But that could be in part because “the district has dug in its heels on certain issues,” she said. For instance: “We’ve seen ourselves be out of compliance on special education. We’re not serving our students on a numbers level—last year I had 34 kids in one class.”
As Lehni noted, some of what’s at issue in the contract negotiation is in the hands of the state (in fact, as part of its ruling holding the legislature in contempt over the McCleary decision, the Supreme Court said that it should be the state’s responsibility to adequately fund school employees’ salaries, not districts’). “But at the same time, the district needs to provide for us here and now,” Lehni said. “We’ve offered a lot, and we’re expecting a lot, but that’s because we’ve done a lot. It’s time.”
Sara Bernard writes about environment and education for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-467-4370. Follow her on Twitter at @saralacy.