In Our View: Arguments Over Reform

Teacher strikes these days often revolve around change instead of pay

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Chicago's recent teacher strike rings a bell here in Washington state, where it's against the law for teachers to strike, but that doesn't seem to stop them.There's no such thing as a good teacher strike, but we can determine the worst of several in recent years in our state: Nine years ago in Marysville, teachers refused to work for 51 days. It remains the longest teacher strike in state history, and it ended when the teachers were threatened with a $250 daily fine. Later we editorialized that the Marysville teachers "accomplished none of their goals. Everyone — teachers (700), students (11,000), parents, administrators — emerged as losers."

In 2009, about 1,700 teachers in Kent went on strike for 18 days before returning to 26,000 students to avoid a $200 daily fine against each teacher.

Last year, Tacoma teachers went on strike for eight days. A Tuesday editorial in The News Tribune of Tacoma made this salient point: "Americans are increasingly fed up with the trade union model when it comes to their schools." Why? Because the trade union model "serves adults, not students."

We couldn't agree more. So often these days, the standard line "it's for the children" is mocked and ridiculed, but in public education, that old saying is not so hackneyed. It will always be the guiding principle of public schools.So when Chicago teachers (whose average annual salary is more than $75,000) refused to work, they generated only frustration among the students, plus frustration and rage among the parents. These are the same parents, remember, whom teachers continually urge to become more involved in schools. Impossible, of course, when teachers are on strike.Actually, pay was said to be not much of a factor in the Chicago dispute. Reform measures -- particularly teacher evaluations, test scores and the right for laid-off teachers to fill new job openings -- were the main points of disagreement. Officials of both the school district and the teachers union are claiming victories in these areas of the negotiations, but none of the changes in the new agreement is what would be considered monumental.

What's different about teacher strikes these days is that most of the negotiations pertain to reform measures rather than financial issues. Teacher unions consistently resist tying teacher evaluations and principal evaluations to student test scores. Also, the unions worship seniority, a doctrine that occasionally contradicts school districts' more noble focus on improving teacher quality. The unions stubbornly push back against a principal's right to make hiring choices based on quality and need.

Here in Washington, we've made legislative progress on education reform, especially in the area of teacher evaluations. Stop and think, for a moment, who might resist the idea of holding teachers more accountable. It's not the good teachers; they welcome such scrutiny. It's only the not-so-good teachers and, of course, their union leaders.

Reform is seldom easy in any public schools. Sometimes, though, it's just the right thing to do. Other times, reform is required by economic conditions. Currently in Washington state, both motivations are in effect.