Striking for school funding

May 20, 2015

Thousands of Seattle teachers participated in a one-day walkout as part of a rolling strike campaign to pressure legislators to fund public education. Lee Sustar reports.

RED-SHIRTED striking teachers--chanting "No more legislators lies, time to fund small class size"--marched alongside students and community groups through downtown Seattle May 19 to demand that the Washington state legislature abide by a voter referendum and state Supreme Court decision, and channel rising state tax revenues to resource-starved public schools.

The one-day action by the Seattle Education Association (SEA) was part of a series of one-day political strikes across the state organized with the support of the Washington Education Association (WEA), the statewide teachers' union.

Despite the enormous profits pulled in by wealthy corporations headquartered in the state, such as Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, education spending levels resemble the poorest states in the South. Per-pupil funding in Washington is 45th among U.S. states and overall spending on education is 40th, according to a WEA fact sheet.

The Seattle strike came one day before SEA negotiators were scheduled to begin negotiations with Seattle Public Schools over a new contract. District officials, while aligned with the union on the question of increased education funding from the state, are apparently nervous that the one-day walkout will be a test run for an open-ended strike in the fall.

Members of the Seattle Education Association on the picket lines during their one-day strike
Members of the Seattle Education Association on the picket lines during their one-day strike (Seattle Education Association)

"This could be the beginning of a struggle, and not necessarily the end," said Andy Russell, a 14-year SEA member who teaches 4th grade at Dearborn Park International School. "We are also negotiating our contract this summer. We are simultaneously sending a message to the state that we want funding and a message to the district about our level of organization."

THE STRIKE campaign is a notable change in direction for the WEA, whose moderate leadership has tended to avoid confrontation for the sake of partnership with school officials and politicians. During the Great Recession and its aftermath, WEA officials accepted the claims by the governor and the legislature that public education would have to suffer through the downturn until an improved economy created greater leeway for school budgets.

Meanwhile, a 2007 lawsuit demanding greater state funding for schools filed by two parents, Stephanie and Matthew McCleary, was working its way through the courts. In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the legislature would have to increase school funding to levels sufficient to meets its constitutional requirement to provide a basic education for all children of the state. But the money didn't come through, as Republicans and conservative Democrats stalled.

Finally, last September, the state Supreme Court found the legislature in contempt of court for its failure to comply with its ruling. The justices have given the legislature a deadline of the end of the 2015 legislative session--expected to wrap up this month--to come up with the money. If lawmakers fail to act, the justices vow to impose penalties on the state, possibly including a direct intervention in the budget process.

Next, impatient voters weighed in on the issue, approving a referendum in last November's election that called for dramatic reductions in class sizes across Washington state. Both Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature are maneuvering to get out of paying the estimated $2 billion required to fund the changes by sending the issue back to voters.

After the legislature continued to stall on the education budget, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee called a special session of the legislature for April 29 specifically to address the issue.

While political pressure for an education funding solution mounted, the previously scheduled 2015 Representative Assembly of the WEA convened on April 23-25. Activists who had been calling for statewide action on the funding issue for years--including members of Social Equality Educators (SEE), a caucus in the SEA--suddenly found a strong majority in favor of their proposals. WEA officials backed a decision by union representatives to launch a series of one-day strikes across the state, from rural towns and quiet suburbs to urban Seattle.

"It was one reality check after the other," said Roberta Lindeman, who retired after 33 years of teaching in Seattle Public Schools and who now works as a substitute, describing the impact of the McCleary decision and the class-size referendum. "It galvanized not just our local, the SEA, but locals across the state."

The one-day strikes began in late April, infuriating Republicans in the state legislature who threatened to legislate penalties on teachers who participated.

Teachers haven't been intimidated. Strikes were set for 22 school districts during the week of May 18 alone. But it's the strike in Seattle, the state's largest school district, that will set the tone for teachers' struggles ahead.

"It gave a glimpse of the anger that people have at the legislature, not just for denying funding, but also its attempts to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores, which flows from the ideas that we need more accountability for teachers," said Dan Troccoli, a substitute teacher, SEA board member and SEE activist. "That's a joke, because these guys aren't doing what the voters approved last fall."

IF THE state legislature is trying to wriggle out of its legal obligations, it's because Washington state politicians in both main parties are diligent about keeping the state attractive to Corporate America and the wealthy.

Washington is one of only seven states with no income tax on individuals or corporations. It's one of only nine states with no capital gains tax. That's good news for people like Microsoft chair Bill Gates and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. But working-class and poor children have to attend schools funded out of the same tax revenues as much of the rest of the state.

These problems may seem peculiar to Washington state. In fact, the same issue is playing out across the U.S., as states and local school districts seek to lock in the austerity budgets of the recession years in order to further drive the corporate restructuring of public education packaged under the heading of "school reform"--all while refusing to tax the wealthy to pay for public education.

"The strike today was really incredible," said Jesse Hagopian, a teacher and union rep at Garfield High School, and a leader of the 2013 boycott of the MAP standardized test. "It was amazing to see thousands of teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and instructional assistants all shoulder to shoulder, walking through the streets of downtown Seattle, looking up at some of the most opulent buildings, surrounded by incredible wealth--and demanding that that wealth be used to fully fund education."

The strikes in Seattle and other districts are important for teachers, parents, students and all working people across the U.S. The message is clear and simple: The wealthy have the money to fund our schools--and it's time to step up the fight to make them pay.

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