The first day of school for the 2018-19 academic year has been marked by numerous teacher strikes throughout the state over proposed raises demanded by public teacher unions. Although the disputes are over new teach salaries set up in the McCleary compromise created by the state legislature last year, some say structural reforms are needed to provide greater certainty for students and parents – though there is disagreement over what exactly should be done.
Since 1976, there have been 78 teacher strikes in Washington. Among the most recent are those being carried out by Evergreen Education Association at the Evergreen Public Schools district in southwest Washington; the school district offered an eight percent salary raise, while the union
demanded a 15 percent increase.
The strikes have occurred despite a letter from Sen. John Braun (R-20) to Governor Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal in which he requested intervention. His Aug. 23 letter cites state law that explicitly prohibits public employees from striking, adding that: “ if our state’s educators are unwilling to perform their work, I ask that you perform your duty to protect and enforce our children’s constitutional right to an education.”
Braun told Lens on Friday that so far he had received a reply only from OSPI, which was reviewing his letter. He added that he views the salary demands as an effort by a small group within the unions to “rebreak the system” the legislature fixed in 2017.
“They’re (unions) trying to get as much money as they can,” he said. “(They’re) doing a great disservice to the students and the state” and “run the risk of undermining a number of districts budgets.”
Although the legal argument against teacher strikes seems fairly clear-cut, the fly in the ointment for those who want it enforced is that there are no penalties for those who do strike. This is in contrast to states such as Florida, where the state education association warns that “if you strike, you can be terminated, action may be brought against your certificate, you will lose all of your retirement benefits, and if you are ever reemployed, it will be on probationary status for 18 months and your salary will be frozen for at least 1 year at the level it was when you began the strike.”
Braun said there have been efforts “to put a little more teeth” into state law, “but the other side of the aisle is not interested in that. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to work in a bipartisan manner this last session and adjust these issues in a way that would have prevented this widespread threat of strikes and unsustainable teacher raises.”
Others such as former State Attorney General Rob McKenna say it’s time for a collective bargaining process, because that’s where the money originates.
In 2016 he wrote: “how can anyone explain how it would be rational to continue the current bargaining system, where teachers unions negotiate with 295 separate school districts? There’s no more fitting word than ‘irrational’ to describe an arrangement where the state would foot the bill for teacher salaries, but those salaries would be bargained separately with 295 schools boards. That makes no sense. You bargain with the people footing the bill – in this case, the state – not the middle man.”
In a recent post, he writes that the current strikes only further emphasize his point. “This whole high-pressure situation shows the absurdity of setting pay in 295 separate contract negotiations. The state pays for the bulk of school costs and salaries, so it’s time to make the rational move to statewide bargaining.”
A ranking member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Braun says state-level negotiations would “avoid some of the confusion that we’re having right now” that has “districts being positioned against each other.
The idea isn’t exactly a partisan one. Former treasurer Dan Grimm made a similar case in 2009 while on the legislative joint task force on basic education. Although the task force didn’t adopt the recommendation, Grimm pushed for it in the task force’s minority report (C-9).
“Eliminating local bargaining imposes on the state clear accountability for fully funding the salaries that make up the major cost of basic education,” the report states. “The lack of alignment between the state’s authority and its constitutional responsibilities will perpetuate the inequitable distribution of highly competent teachers and educational opportunities they provide students. Richer districts are able to attract more experienced and better qualified teachers by using local levy funds to offer higher salaries than poor districts can accord. Unable to compete, poorer districts are consigned to offering chronically inequitable educational opportunities.”
Not everyone is sold on that idea. That includes Washington Policy Center’s Education Director Liv Finne.
“There are districts in this state that are right now standing up to the union and saying we cannot grant you a double-digit pay increases,” she added. “It would help if the law itself had more teeth so there would be some detrimental consequences, but I don’t think we’d ever pass that in Washington state.”
Eastside Education Network (EEN) Founder and President Beth Sigall told Lens that she’s not “a definite yes or no” on the idea. “Based on what I’ve read and witnessed over the past ten or so years, it seems like our education system would certainly benefit from more predictability with schools opening on time every year. Whether statewide collective bargaining would improve that, I don’t know. If it does, it’s something we should consider.”
She added that “When you have schools and communities where decisions are locally-based, and people feel their voices are being heard, that’s a better outcome. Statewide bargaining creeps into the conversation because people are frustrated.”
Finne says the best route forward is by improving parent choice through charter schools and school vouchers. “That would provide the necessary incentive for the monopoly schools to reexamine their practices to going on strike. It’s a broken model. I don’t think it can be fixed with fines. The way to fix it is to let the parents take the money away from the system.”
After several legal fights, 10 charter schools have opened in Washington state and currently have 3,5000 students enrolled. A recent poll by Education Next found most voters (54 percent) also supported “wider choice” for parents including vouchers for students to attend private schools.