Our chaotic summer in Washington comes at the heels of national attention to teacher pay and compensation.
Before the Red for Ed movement covered five states with protests over education funding and teacher pay, there was a local, slow-burning fight over the way schools are funded: McCleary v. Washington.
The Supreme Court of Washington’s ruling on the case forced the state Legislature in recent years to infuse more money into public schools, most recently with a $1 billion boost to teacher salaries during the 2018 session.
Now, parents and students statewide are seeing the immediate impact of that case, as teachers in some districts strike and others authorize a walkout, as they have in Seattle. While Washington’s chaotic summer wasn’t triggered by the better-known walkouts in Arizona or Oklahoma, it comes on the heels of the national attention Red for Ed drove to education funding — and a year when states felt the impact of teachers’ fights.
Already in 2018, unions have successfully lobbied for raises, better health insurance and pensions by staging walkouts and lobbying state legislatures. It all started in February, when teachers in West Virginia struck for nearly two weeks. They returned to their posts after Republican Gov. Jim Justice reluctantly signed a bill that would provide a 5 percent raise to teachers and other state employees.
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Other states — Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona and Kentucky — took note.
“If you look at the [places with] widespread walkouts, they’re in states that are hit pretty hard by the recession, and have fewer worker protections to begin with — as well as smaller compensation packages,” said Katharine Strunk, an education policy professor at Michigan State University.
In Red for Ed states, teachers make significantly less than the average college-educated worker, according to CityLab, a reporting project from The Atlantic. In Arizona, for example, teachers make only 63 cents for every dollar earned by other college graduates. In Washington, teachers make about 22 percent less (or 78 cents per dollar) than other college graduates, according to Economic Policy Institute data cited in CityLab. The Economic Policy Institute is a progressive-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C..
And in a few of the states where teachers waged a visible fight this year, unions don’t have the clout or political muscle like they do in Washington — they’re “right to work” states, which means workers are not compelled to pay dues or become members of the unions that represent them.
“The state teachers union (Washington Education Association) has historically been such a dominant player,” said Tom Halverson, a senior education policy researcher and lecturer for the University of Washington College of Education.
In Oklahoma, grassroots organizers and union leaders argued over how effective it was to have the teachers’ union at the forefront of the strike. But the nine-day walkout — which initially secured $6,000 raises for educators — did result in some political shifts recently. A few legislators who lost their seats during the Republican primary this week “had earned the wrath of public education supporters,” the Tulsa World reported.
What made the Red for Ed movement so successful, said Strunk, was the language that unions used.
“They are thinking more holistically about all of these things [higher salaries, smaller class sizes, better benefits] and how they make for better education,” she said.
The battles might be fought locally in Washington, as each district competes with its neighbors to offer competitive salaries, but the messages are similar — so much so that a group of teachers from West Virginia sent their support for Seattle teachers, who authorized a strike Tuesday, in a letter read aloud at a recent rally.
It’s a smart move for unions in Washington to make the most of the national spotlight on teacher pay, said Halverson. But he cautions unions to make a long and short-term plan, in case the state can’t inject the same amount of money into teacher salaries in the future.
He said, “It’s going to need to be something that can be kept up over time.”