I spent a recent night at a teacher's union meeting. After the speeches, motions and ayes, my fellow teachers decided to participate in yet another one of the walkouts that are rolling through Washington state. Arlington, Lakewood, and Stanwood-Camano were the first to walkout on April 22. Seattle teachers walk out May 19th. More are coming.
Many parents and others are wondering, why a walkout? Why now?
On April 25, teachers held a rally on the capitol steps, but the Washington State Legislature adjourned the next day without finalizing a state budget. Now lawmakers are back for a special session to hammer out education funding. Teachers want education issues front and center: in the news, all over social media networks, and flooding lawmaker’s in-boxes.
“Without these rolling walkouts, the legislators would be owning the media,” says Diane Flynn, UniServ director. When teachers walkout, conversations begin.
What do teachers want?
‘McCleary’ is the rally cry. In the 2012 McCleary decision, the Washington State Supreme Court found that the state was in contempt of court, failing to provide schools with “ample funding … accomplished by means of dependable and regular tax sources.” According to ESHB 2261, this means $12,701 per pupil by the 2017–2018 school year. The Senate bill for next year slates $9,000 per pupil. A proposed capital gains tax would help bridge the gap.
Educators want that missing money to fund two things: Smaller class sizes and a cost-of-living increase. Teachers are also worried about high stakes testing, frozen healthcare allocations, and the creation of a uniform state pay scale for teachers.
Smaller classes are a big deal. With increasing demands on teachers, small class sizes means that teachers can spend more one on one time with students who are learning English, struggling with a learning disorder, or need extra feedback on their model-UN speech. Plus, it’s nearly impossible to grade 160 essays in two days. Proposed budgets disregard the voter approved I-1351, which aimed to reduce class sizes to 25 students (with a limit of 17 students in K–3). Budgets only reduce K–3 classes.
Who makes the decision to walk out?
Typically, this decision is made at a general membership union meeting. Meetings cannot be held during teacher work hours, and the evening meeting time limits attendance. In the Mukilteo School District, where I work, about a third of the 920 members were present and cast votes. Most speakers were in favor of a walkout, although several spoke out in opposition. The quick count after the meeting resulted in 216 favoring the walkout, with 113 opposing votes. The next morning, the district announced it was closing schools on May 20. Schools will remain in session for an extra day in the summer, as it would have in the event of a snow day.
Don’t teachers think about the students and their families?
Yes. Everyone that spoke acknowledged the hardship a walkout causes families. Some argued that bringing attention to education issues was worth this hardship, some argued it was not. A few days ago I spoke to Barbie Collins Young, a single mom whose fourth-grade son is in the Lake Washington School District. Her reaction to the walkout in her district was “basic panic.” She added, “When you work full time, the school schedule is tough enough as it is.”
Luckily for Collins, she is part of a circle of single parents who support each other, so instead of paying $15 an hour for a baby sitter, one parent took the kids in the morning and she took the afternoon off work to cover the rest of the day. Despite the hardship, Collins Young says, “I totally understand. I think teachers are worth it, so I support them. But on a personal level it is incredibly frustrating. But I suppose you can’t get attention without causing somebody pain.”
Is that pain worth it? What about the students? Back at the union meeting, concern that students would miss a day of valuable instruction right before taking AP and SBA tests was expressed. It was also mentioned that teachers make quite a bit more money than other people in our community do. Is it right to walkout when some of my students will go hungry without having a school lunch? Can I complain about my lack of a raise when my students go home to hotels or shelters or empty houses while their parents work minimum wage jobs?
I decided no. I voted against the walkout. I didn’t speak at the meeting, but maybe I should have. Maybe I should have shared the desperation Collins Young felt, or the panic of my seniors, who now have one fewer day to complete their graduation requirements. Or maybe I should have voted yes, because well-funded public education is worth every inconvenience in the world.