School districts should make school success their No. 1 priority as they negotiate teacher contracts.
Washington school officials are understandably nervous about this year’s teacher-contract negotiations.
This will be the first opportunity to establish a new teacher salary grid at the district level, since the state Legislature finished reforming the way Washington pays for public schools. The Legislature’s response to the 2012 Supreme Court McCleary decision is complex and leaves plenty of room for local decision-making on school-budget priorities. Perhaps too much room.
Job one is assessing the students’ needs and then providing what they need. Do students need teachers to come in on Saturdays for makeup classes? Should the district add parent engagement and attendance staff to each building? These are just a few of the ways schools might be able to improve learning and support for students.
The McCleary decision is about ensuring all Washington students get a good education, and erasing the inequity that persisted between districts.
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Already, the statewide teachers’ union is aggressively touting its intention to turn all the extra money for education into big raises for teachers.
In a Washington Education Association blog post this week, union President Kim Mead advocates for double-digit pay increases for all public school employees — 15 percent or more for teachers and other certificated staff, and as high as 37 percent for other employees.
The state budget provides — and school employees have earned — generous raises this year, but the taxpayers are not handing out Powerball windfalls.
At least half of Washington’s 295 school districts are scheduled to negotiate a new teacher contract this year. The other half may open existing contracts to update teacher pay to reflect changes in state law and education allocations, according to the WEA.
When the 2018-19 school year begins, minimum pay for entry level teachers goes up to $40,000 from $36,521 and a new regionalization factor means raises for teachers will depend in part on the cost of living in their district. This factor is part of the new education budget and not negotiable.
Beyond those parameters, where negotiations go is up to local district leaders and teacher-union representatives. Both groups say they are focused on using extra money from the state to improve educational opportunities for students.
Most of the new state money replaces locally raised levy dollars for basic education, as ordered by the Supreme Court. That frees up levy money to be spent on enrichment programs.
Some of each district’s additional dollars should be used to hire more teachers, counselors, librarians, learning-assistance tutors and classroom aides. It should provide extra help for kids who are struggling, including more learning time, small-group tutoring and special programs to meet the needs of children in each school. For example, in some schools, setting aside dollars to train teachers and other staff to better meet the needs of children who have experienced trauma would be appropriate. These improvements won’t be possible if all the new money is used for raises.
The state education budget for the 2018-19 school year is not a big, undefined pot of money for teacher raises. Both school administrators and lawmakers have expressed this concern since they heard the Supreme Court’s latest ruling on the McCleary decision.
District leaders will enter negotiations with more confidence if they first work on a new salary grid to replace the now-defunct statewide guide. School districts should also engage parents, talking about their educational priorities.
Does a district need to update its curriculum or buy new books? Would a new teacher mentoring program be beneficial? How could master teachers help every instructor improve her or his craft? Should the high school add paid teacher time before and after school so students can drop in for extra help? Does the district need a new approach to student discipline?
These are among the many initiatives that could help. They aren’t needed at every school or district, but that’s what local control should be about. School districts need to focus on their own students’ needs and use their financial flexibility to make sure those needs are met.
Districts will have plenty of money left in their purses to give teachers generous pay increases, while designing their budgets to have the maximum impact on their educational priorities.