Ted S. Warren / AP

Thousands of teachers strike across Washington state

Teachers in 63 districts staging walkouts as lawmakers refuse to pass voter initiative for more school funds

Hundreds of educators began picketing Thursday in Washington state's Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and Burbank school districts — joining some 60 other districts where there have been walkouts to protest what many say is the legislature’s failure to adequately fund K-12 public schools.

They joined thousands of Seattle teachers who earlier this week staged a one-day strike, as teachers in the eastern Washington city of Spokane voted Thursday to hold their walkout on May 27.

“I’m standing on the street now with around 800 teachers,” Kennewick High School teacher Sabiha Khan told Al Jazeera. “Cars are honking in support and there are lots of students that have showed up with signs.”

Teachers across the state are calling for the legislature to fund smaller class sizes at every level, as required by a voter initiative that has become law. Lawmakers have so far failed to implement the initiative because of lack of agreement on a budget to fully fund public education.

Striking teachers are also demanding competitive pay and benefits.

Teachers have two main issues with the way the legislature is funding education, according to Rich Wood, spokesman for Washington Educators Association (WEA).

“The first is funding for smaller class sizes as required by Initiative 1351, which over 1 million people voted for and is now law — and which directed the legislature to reduce class size for grades K-12, with even smaller class sizes in high poverty areas in the Tri-City area,” Wood said, referring to Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, cities all located near each other in eastern Washington.

“Unfortunately, neither the House nor the Senate has funded that initiative,” he said. “They’re essentially gutting it or overriding it, which is just unacceptable — kids are already packed into some of the most overcrowded classes in the nation.”

The Seattle Educators Association said in a statement this week that by ignoring Initiative 1351, Olympia was failing to meet a state Supreme Court mandate to fully fund public schools.

“Parents and voters need to know that legislators are cutting deals right now that will leave our kids far behind,” the union said in a statement. “A strike is far from our first choice, but we can’t allow the legislature to continue to fail our kids.”

Teachers are also calling for increased pay and benefits. The legislature hasn’t funded a cost of living increase in six years, Wood said. 

The Washington Cost-of-Living Adjustments for Teachers Initiative, or Initiative Measure 732, was approved by 63 percent of voters in 2000, but the legislature has suspended it every year since 2008, WEA said on its website.

“Washington legislators got an 11 percent pay increase, and teachers didn’t even get a cost of living pay increase,” Khan said. The lawmakers' pay increase was approved on May 13, the Seattle Times reported.

Legislators have proposed a 3 percent pay increase for Washington teachers over two years and no increase in health benefits, Wood said, adding that the proposal was unacceptable to teachers who are taking home less money now than a few years ago because of cost-of-living increases.

Lawmakers in the state capital, Olympia, contend that the budget shows the largest increase in education funding in recent years and meets the demands of the court order. They also say that Washington teachers have some of the highest salaries of any public educators in the country.

“We’re facing a teacher shortage, so we need professional, competitive pay and benefits to attract and keep quality teachers at our schools,” Wood said.

Teachers are also protesting legislators’ push for more standardized testing, according to Khan.

“I was talking to a Pasco geometry teacher who had counted the days of testing for common core and all of these things,” Khan said. “He added them up and it ended up being over 100 days of testing during the school year. The legislature only meets for 105 days and we are testing our kids for more days than that!”

Wood, the WEA spokesman, said the legislature is in contempt of court for not fully funding education as required by Initiative 1351, for ignoring the will of the voters and shortchanging teachers’ pay and benefits.

As of Thursday, 63 Washington school districts had voted to hold one-day walkouts, according to an interactive map provided by WEA. Lawmakers have begun their second special session. After 130 days in session, they have not agreed on an education budget, Wood said.

“There’s a sense of urgency and frustration with Olympia that is growing, and that’s why we’re seeing an increase in the number of walkouts directed at the legislature,” Wood said.

Some state lawmakers have shown support for the teachers, but others have criticized teachers for striking.

Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon this week proposed a bill that would prohibit paying teachers while they participate in strikes — earning him the ire of teachers who have gone door-to-door handing out flyers about the lawmakers and their positions on teacher pay and class size.

In Spokane, where teachers will hold a walkout later this month, the Spokane Education Association union said it had a message for state legislators.

“Our students deserve it, and every singe educator in Spokane Public Schools that are doing the hard work every day deserve our legislators to fully fund education,” Jenny Rose, union president, told the Spokesman Review. “I am so proud of my members who stood up and said, ‘It’s time.’”

With wire services

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