Teachers from Seattle, Issaquah and Mercer Island held a strike Tuesday to pressure lawmakers to increase school funding. Meanwhile, some lawmakers criticized the walkouts, saying they want to dock teacher pay for skipping school, prompting Democrats to leave a hearing about a GOP-favored bill to punish teachers for strikes.
Thousands of public-school teachers filled Seattle streets on Tuesday in a one-day walkout that caused tempers to flare in Olympia, where Democratic senators walked out of a hearing over a Republican-favored bill that would punish teachers for such strikes.
The teachers from Seattle, Issaquah and Mercer Island were just winding down their noontime rally when the hearing in Olympia got under way and Democrats on the committee left the room.
Before leaving, state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, made a short statement condemning the bill — which would dock teachers’ pay for the days while they are on strike — as having “countless legal, moral and logistical flaws.”
“This bill offers no solutions to our historic funding challenges and it is clearly only useful as a messaging tool,” said Hasegawa, ranking Democrat on the committee. “The message is that there is more will to attack teachers and their families than come up with real solutions to our funding challenges.”
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But the hearing went on anyway, with the remaining lawmakers speaking out against striking teachers. And though many argue that the law on teacher strikes is ambiguous, Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane and chair of the committee, said he believes they are illegal.
Legal or not, the teachers turned out in the thousands Tuesday, filling downtown Seattle streets as they marched from Seattle Center to Westlake Park.
Police blocked intersections and escorted at least 2,000 teachers, parents and students, who chanted and cheered as they walked, carrying signs. Some played drums and rang cowbells. Garfield High Latin teacher Wayne Miller strummed a banjo.
They repeatedly called for the Legislature to lower class sizes to the levels that voters approved last November — which neither the state House nor Senate budget proposals currently fund — and to reinstate the cost-of-living increases that voters also approved for teachers back in 2000. The Legislature has suspended those for the past six years. (That doesn’t mean teachers’ pay has not increased at all over that time — teachers early in their careers still get yearly increases, and some districts have provided raises to all teachers through local tax levies.)
Teachers also want lawmakers to fulfill the requirements of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, the ruling that said state legislators are shortchanging students by not providing as many dollars to public schools as the state constitution requires. Last fall, justices found lawmakers in contempt for not making enough progress to fully fund schools.
“We’re not asking for anything the law doesn’t already require,” said Theo Moriarty, a seventh-grade teacher at Hamilton International School in Seattle.
During the rally, some teachers also mocked lawmakers for receiving an 11 percent raise over the next two years while proposing much smaller pay increases for teachers. Three City Council members — Kshama Sawant, Tim Burgess and John Okamoto — joined the march, too.
Marina Pita, a teacher at Concord International School in Seattle, said there’s not enough money in her school’s budget to provide adequate classroom supplies, so teachers reach into their own pockets.
“We’re out there buying pencils,” she said.
Pita said lawmakers should take note of the nearly 60 districts across the state that have held or are planning one-day walkouts.
“If we don’t come out here, everybody thinks things are OK,” she said. “Then the public thinks there is no problem.”
Jeff Randolph, an English teacher at Mercer Island High School, said of all the teachers’ gripes, class size was most important to him. His largest class is 31 students, he said, which makes for a lot of essays to grade.
During the march, Randolph pushed a stroller carrying daughter Esme, 1, with one hand, while passing out pamphlets on how to contact lawmakers with the other.
Are walkouts legal?
Tuesday’s hearing wasn’t the first time Republicans in the Senate have expressed dismay over Washington teachers’ one-day strikes, which started in late April.
When word of the walkouts first spread, they took to Twitter, asking “why the illegal #WEA union walkouts?”
Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna chimed in, too, writing on his website that teacher protests are “not legal under any circumstances.”
School districts have taken striking teachers to court and won. During a 2009 strike in Kent, for example, a judge ordered fines for teachers who refused to return to work after about two weeks of protests. A 49-day strike in Marysville in 2003 — the longest-ever on record in Washington — also ended after a back-to-work order from a judge.
McKenna and others point to a state law tucked into a section on collective-bargaining rights that reads: “Nothing contained in this chapter shall permit or grant any public employee the right to strike.” That’s partly what McKenna relied on in 2006 when, as the state’s attorney general, he wrote an opinion in which he said state and local employees — including teachers — do not have a legally protected right to strike.
The bill discussed Tuesday in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee would withhold pay and benefits for teachers on the days that they strike. One main sponsor is state Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat from Potlatch who caucuses with Republicans,
But the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state’s largest teachers union, says McKenna’s opinion is not law, and that the statute he cites doesn’t apply to teachers, who are protected under a different set of laws.
Without a law prohibiting or allowing strikes, they remain lawful, said WEA spokesman Rich Wood.
And while some contracts — including Seattle’s — explicitly say the union will not “cause or encourage” teachers to strike, the WEA says there’s a difference between striking against a district and against the Legislature.
Many say the law regarding strikes is too ambiguous, including Bill Keim, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.
“There is an interpretation of law that they’re illegal, but I don’t think that law is clear,” he said. “Clarifying that law would be helpful.”
Even before Tuesday’s hearing, some said Sheldon’s bill does not appear to be gaining traction. The Republican caucus chair, Sen. Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee, said she probably wouldn’t support it. In a regular news conference, Gov. Jay Inslee said, “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Meanwhile, teachers in about 20 more districts plan to strike later this month and in early June, joining 40 school districts where teachers already have held walkouts of some kind — some for a full day, canceling classes, others for half a day. (A few, including Edmonds, have decided not to strike during the school day, instead planning events after school or on days when teacher trainings were scheduled.)
The teachers won’t lose any pay, because the walkout days will be made up at the end of the school year.
And no school district appears to be putting up much of a fight.
“With a one-day walkout, it would virtually be over before they could even get the paperwork filed,” said Keim, of the school administrators association.
Alan Burke, executive director of the Washington State School Directors’ Association n, agreed. Even school boards opposed to the strikes, he said, would likely take one look at a cost-benefit analysis for legal action and say, “It’s not worth it.”