This is the year the Washington State Legislature finally is ready to give schools a little more of what they're constitutionally guaranteed. Yet dozens of school districts, fed up with those same state lawmakers, have voted for a one-day strike.
Spokane classes were canceled this Wednesday after the Spokane Education Association voted to walk out in protest for the first time since 1979. Over the past few months, more than 60 other districts have voted to go on a one-day strike. The frustration has long been in the works.
Washington's average teacher salary — just under $53,000 — is ranked 23rd, in the upper half of the states. But Spokane Education Association President Jenny Rose points out that rising insurance premiums have gobbled up an increasing chunk of teacher paychecks, and because of local variations, Spokane teacher salaries are lower. Many hourly employees in the schools are faring far worse.
"A third of members are not teachers," Rose says. "And what they make is at the poverty level. I have members who are on food stamps."
On top of that, there's also frustration over the impact of a new set of intensive standardized tests. "I've never heard more horror stories from our students," Rose says. "It's almost like torture, to be honest."
The state Supreme Court has ruled the legislature has for years shirked the state's "paramount duty" of funding basic education, forcing districts to rely on local levies to make up for the shortfall.
This year, the legislature is moving to correct that, planning to direct at least $1.3 billion more toward education, further reducing class sizes in early grades. After more than six years of deferrals, they plan to finally give a cost-of-living raise to teachers.
Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, argues that this year's budget will likely "be the most aggressive investment in education in the history of Washington. We are arguably the most educationally friendly legislature in history."
David Egly, a teacher at the project-based Community School in Spokane Public Schools, hasn't felt that friendliness. He voted for the walkout after feeling like other tactics hadn't worked.
"There are rallies that we've tried. There are emails," Egly says. "Teachers are pretty much feeling our side of it is not being heard."
His frustration isn't about the salary. It's about having resources to teach well.
"My belief is one of the top things that can benefit students is lower class size," Egly says. The state has funded lower class sizes in the earliest grades, but class sizes remain large in higher grades, despite a voter initiative calling for reductions.
Still, a third of Spokane teachers voted against the walkout, and other districts — like Mead and Central Valley — declined to join the strike. Some teachers slam the timing, pointing to the legislature's existing efforts to provide more funding. They worry that a strike could imperil next year's bond efforts, driving a wedge between teachers and parents. ("My high school-age daughter sees this as you guys walking out on her education," one parent commented on the Spokane Education Association Facebook page.)
Then there are those like Riley Moore, an English teacher at North Central High School. Swamped by testing and end-of-year assignments, he says the walkout discussion felt sudden.
"This is the busiest time in the year, when students need you the most," Moore says. "I don't feel like I had enough time to weigh all my options and look at everything."
Ultimately, he voted against it. He agrees with the intention, but he's unsure the strike was the best tactic to rally teachers, students and parents behind more education funding. "It would be nice to see everyone on the same page, yelling the same message across the state," Moore says.
As many teachers planned to gather at Riverfront Park at a union rally on Wednesday, Moore had different plans: "There's a group of us here that are planning on doing a community service day [instead]," he says. ♦