By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Sept. 9, 2015
Teachers in Seattle, from Washington state’s largest school district, went on strike Wednesday, the first day of school, after contract talks between the district and the union failed.
Teachers and staff picketed at every Seattle public school early Wednesday, union leaders told The Seattle Times. Educators and support staff from the 5,000-member Seattle Education Association (SEA) say they are fighting for reasonable testing policies, fair discipline policies, length of the school day and pay raises.
These are “issues that every educator in the country is grappling with right now,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association. Garcia said that if teachers gain traction on the issues in Seattle, it could give hope to other educators across the nation.
“Our message is that we are ready to go back into the classroom as soon as we can get a fair agreement,” said Mark Landreville, a chemistry teacher taking part in the strike.
The Seattle Public Schools said, in a statement released Wednesday, that it hopes talks can resume and an agreement reached so that students can return to school.
“Bargaining teams for both sides have worked hard over the past months and practically round the clock in recent days,” the statement said. Among issues that have not been agreed upon are salary, teacher evaluations, grievance procedures, and rules on student discipline, according to information posted on the website.
With the Seattle educators’ union on strike for the first time in 30 years, about 53,000 students in some 97 schools stayed home on what was supposed to be their first day of school. The city said it was expanding before- and after-school programs at several community centers into all-day camps to help parents with child care.
The strike comes as teachers in Pasco, a small city about 230 miles away from Seattle, in the southeastern part of the state, voted last week to continue a strike there in defiance of a judge’s order to go back to work, union spokesman Rich Wood said.
Teachers and the district are far apart on the issues, but district officials and union leaders have said bargaining will continue despite the strike, according to The Seattle Times.
Negotiations began in May, when more than 60 school districts in the state held a series of strikes and walkouts. The SEA said major issues remain unresolved. The union says it is seeking its the first cost of living pay increase in six years and the first increase in health care funding in five years.
The district has proposed a 13 percent salary increase — including the cost of living raise the state is expected to provide this year — over the next three years in exchange for more instructional time with students, the district said in its latest bargaining update.
Teachers also want their evaluations to be carried out in way they consider more fair, instead of being tied to students’ scores on standardized tests, SEA said on its website. Educators in Seattle and Pasco want less standardized testing overall, arguing that it interferes with their ability to teach.
Another issue Seattle teachers want to focus on is equity in student discipline. Some have pointed out a racial bias in school discipline policy.
Black students in Washington across the United States have been suspended at disproportionate rates. Last year, 8.6 percent of African-American students in Washington were taken from classrooms for misbehavior, even though they only comprised 4.8 percent of students, The Seattle Times reported in May.
Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, the council’s first socialist member in decades, said she would hold a community meeting Thursday in support of striking educators and to address some of these issues.
“Seattle’s educators are talented and hardworking people who have tirelessly led the fight to defend students and education,” Sawant said in a news release.
“Please join me and the Coalition for Schools Seattle Deserves at the community meeting tomorrow … let’s discuss how to build solidarity for our educators. We will make sure they and the district know that Seattle strongly supports the union’s fight for high quality public education for all of the city’s young people,” Sawant said.
With wire services