Today was an incredible step forward in the struggle to fully fund education in Washington state: our union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA), went on a one day strike, joining over 50 local educators’ unions in a rolling strike wave to demand that the State Legislature spend billions of more dollars on the schools.
I have been part of a rank-and-file organization in Seattle called the Social Equality Educators (SEE) who have argued for years that if we want to achieve the schools our students deserve, we will have to take collective action to force those in power to back down. We have helped organize collective action in the victorious MAP test boycott, the successful Garfield High School walkout against the proposed displacement of one of our teachers, and to support the mass boycotts of the SBAC testing this year. However, we have said that if the union as a whole were to take up these struggles, the power of our thousands of educators across the city would be strong enough to reverse the attack by the corporate education reformers.
Today, the SEA learned from these previous experiences of collective action by the rank-and-file, as well as other smaller locals around the state that began this one day rolling strike wave. The day began with educators, students, and parents rallying at designated high schools. Educators at these spirited morning rallies took up chants beyond the funding issues to also address abuses of high-stakes testing and Black Student Lives Matter. Then everyone boarded buses and headed for the Space Needle where we gathered to begin our march. As nurses, counselors, librarians, instructional assistants, family support workers, office staff, teachers, other educators, students, and parents stepped out into the street to begin the rally, I began to realize how many thousands of people were ready to take direct action to defend our schools–likely some 5,000 people joined the rally.
Why were so many educators, students and parents motivated to join the rally?
Washington State ranks 40th in the nation in per-pupil funding, a fact that has caused increasing hardships to Seattle Public Schools students. The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled the State Legislature is in contempt of court for failing to comply with the court’s McCleary decision—the school funding order designed to uphold the Washington State Constitution, which reads in part,
Preamble, Article IX, Washington Constitution: It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.
Failure to fully fund education has had disastrous results for the students in the Seattle Public Schools. The elementary schools in Seattle have lost funding for their counselors, leaving hundreds of our most vulnerable young students without the social and emotional supports they so desperately need. Transportation services have been dramatically cut, leaving families scrambling every morning to find a way to get their children to school. Elective courses, art, music, drama, and other enrichment programs have been eliminated. Educators have seen their pay lag the increasing cost of living in Seattle. Class sizes have ballooned and students are being denied the individual attention they deserve. Moreover, all of these problems have disproportionately impacted lower income students and students of color—contributing to an opportunity gap between socio-economic classes and between students of color and their white peers.
In the current legislative session, the Washington State Legislature has not done enough to address these severe funding problems.
Both the Senate and the House propose to ignore the recently ratified I-1351, the class size reduction initiative, flouting the democratic will of the voters. For the last six years, the state Legislature has suspended voter-approved cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for school employees. Now, the current proposal is to raise educator pay by only 1.8%–while the Legislature has proposed raising their own pay by 11%. In a region as wealthy as ours, it simply isn’t fair that average teacher pay in Washington State ranks 42nd in the nation.
Some members of the state Legislature have said that they will only support additional funding to the schools if teachers agree to use standardized test scores in their evaluations. This stipulation that funding be tied to increased use of standardized testing is not part of the Washington State Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on fully funding schools. Moreover, the use of value added modeling (VAM) to use standardized tests scores to judge teacher performance has been thoroughly debunked by leading educators and statisticians. The American Statistical Association, the oldest and largest statistical association in the world, recently slammed the high-stakes value-added method of evaluating teachers, saying, “VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes…VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.”
It is true we need accountability in education, but this should start with politicians being accountable for fully funding education and ending the opportunity gap.
Today’s strike by Seattle’s educators, and the mass outpouring of supporters, is just the beginning in the struggle for the schools our children deserve.
Jesse Hagopian teaches history at Garfield High School and is the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.