By Don McIntosh
As many as 5,000 teachers went out on strike the week before Labor Day at seven Southwest Washington school districts — districts where school superintendents tried to hold on to funds the Legislature had granted for long-overdue teacher raises. In each case, strikes were authorized by overwhelming majorities — from 93 percent to as high as 98.4 percent. The strikes resulted in the complete closure of whole school districts, postponing the school year’s start for over 60,000 students.
Teachers at the Longview school district were first to go on strike, cancelling an Aug. 23 teacher training day, and continuing with the Aug. 29 start of the school year. The next walkouts began Aug. 28 in East Vancouver’s Evergreen School District, and the Washougal and Hockinson school districts. On Aug. 29, strikes spread to the Vancouver, Battle Ground, and Ridgefield school districts. [Teachers in the Camas School District are set to go out Sept. 4, the day after Labor Day.]
[9/4/18 UPDATE: As of mid-day Tuesday, Sept. 4, the strikes had ended in Vancouver, Ridgefield, and Hockinson, but continued in East Vancouver’s Evergreen School District and the Washougal, Battle Ground, and Longview school districts. Camas School District teachers had been set to begin a strike Sept. 4, but settled before then.]
Teachers are making no apologies about the reason for the strikes: They want big wage increases. And they’re entitled to them, as part of the settlement of an extraordinary decade-old lawsuit called McCleary v State of Washington.
In its 2012 decision in the case, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the Washington Legislature had chronically underfunded public schools, violating the state constitution. Article 9 of the Washington State Constitution says, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” Not only hadn’t the state been providing ample funding, but it was relying on school districts to fill gaps with local property tax levies. So the Court in 2012 ordered the Washington Legislature to fully fund basic education, including school employee salaries, through regular and dependable tax sources — by 2018. But two years later, lawmakers had done next to nothing. At that point, the court found the legislature in contempt, and ordered fines of $100,000 a day beginning August 2015. This June, to settle the case and stop the fines, legislators approved a funding package that massively increased school funding, with an additional $2 billion allocated for employee raises.
“It’s a simple issue,” said Vancouver Education Association president Lynn Maiorca told the Labor Press. “They sent the money. The money was earmarked for teacher salaries, and we want teachers to have that money.”
Teachers see it as time to catch up after years of legislative malpractice. State lawmakers haven’t just been violating the constitution; they’ve also been violating a voter-passed initiative. In 2000 — after teachers had gone without raises in four of the previous eight years — Washington voters passed Initiative 732, which mandated that school employees get at least inflation-based cost-of-living increases. Yet, since the measure passed, teachers have gone without an annual cost-of-living raise as many as six times. They even suffered a 1.9 percent pay cut in the 2011-2013 budget, at the height of the recession.
All told, average teacher pay in Washington state declined 8 percent in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars (from $58,829 to $54,147 between the 1999-2000 school year and 2016-17, according to figures from the U.S. Education Department.
Now that they have additional funds from the state, districts around Washington are negotiating raises of 10 to 21 percent [Click here for an interactive map listing the raises]. But in the eight Southwest Washington districts, school administrators are offering smaller raises, talking about using the windfall to build up reserve funds, and asking teachers to make other concessions — like taking on additional workload — in return for raises.
[9/4/18 UPDATE: Those positions shifted once the strikes got under way. On Sept. 4, Vancouver teachers voted by 92 percent to approve a new contract with raises of 12 to 13 percent. Striking Ridgefield teachers won a 26 percent pay increase over three years. Hockinson teachers won a 16.5 percent increase over two years. And the day before their strike was to begin, Camas teachers settled for a 12.5 percent increase over two years. As of press time, Evergreen School District was the biggest holdout.]
“This money was already sent down by the governor, the state legislature, and the Supreme Court,” says Evergreen Education Association president Bill Beville. “They’ve all said this money belongs in teacher salaries, and [the district] is just holding on to it. Teachers are fed up. They’re tired of being disrespected, and this is purely disrespect.”
On the strike picket line outside Evergreen High School on day one of the strike, spirits were high. All day long, passing motorists honked their support, and parents, students and members of the community dropped by bringing water and snacks. Some parents handed out strips of paper with a message: “We love you and support you! Thank you for taking the time to show us what it means to stand up for yourself even when it is difficult.”
“Kids and parents and dogs, everybody’s walking the line with us,” Beville said. “Among all the things that we expected when we went on strike, the most unexpected was the overwhelming support we’re getting from the community. Even on Facebook, when people post negative messages, parents are jumping on them like piranhas.”
Public support at record high
A nationwide poll released just as the strikes began shows just how strong public support for teachers is now. In the most recent annual PDK Poll on attitudes toward public schools, two-thirds said teacher salaries are too low, and just 6 percent said teacher salaries are too high. Not only that, but 73 percent of respondents said they would support public school teachers in their community if they went on strike for higher pay. Support was even higher among those who would be most affected, parents of public school students — 78 percent. The perception of low salaries is also taking a toll, the poll found: Fewer than half of Americans — 46 percent — said they’d like their child to become a public school teacher — down from 70 percent in 2009 and 75 percent in the first PDK poll in 1969.
[MORE PHOTOS HERE.]