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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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Teacher walkout’s target, legislators, listening

Partisan split shows in reactions to teachers' tactics

By , Columbian Political Writer

After five years in the classroom, teaching math and science to middle school students, Ann Rivers has the heart of a teacher, she said.

But the same number of years in the state Capitol has given her the perspective of a lawmaker.

The one-day teacher walkouts being staged across the state, the senator from La Center said, are sending the wrong message.

“I love my teachers,” Rivers said. “But I think they are being steered the wrong way by unions on this one.”

On Friday, Evergreen Public Schools teachers voted to join more than 20 other school districts across the state and stage a one-day strike. Evergreen teachers plan to walk out May 13, and unions representing teachers and support staff in several other Clark County districts may be joining them.

Unions considering joining the walkout are the Camas Education Association, the Battle Ground Education Association, the Vancouver Education Association, the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals and the Washougal Association of Educators.

Lawmakers recently failed to strike a deal on a two-year operating budget and an education spending proposal. Gov. Jay Inslee called them back to Olympia for a 30-day special legislative session.

“Teachers look at the lack of process in Olympia and the proposals on the table, and they are taking action,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association.

Teachers have gone without a cost-of-living adjustment for six years, Wood said. And he said, the average teacher in the state, who makes $56,291, hasn’t seen an increase in state funding for health care costs in several years.

“Go into any school, into the lunch room, and ask how many are taking home less money in (their) state paycheck this year than last year,” Wood said. “And a lot would raise their hands.”

Lawmakers react

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, stood with teachers from around the state recently as they rallied in Olympia.

“I absolutely feel each and every one of us as citizens has the right to use our voice and to speak collectively to broaden that voice,” Cleveland said.

She understands teachers’ frustrations.

“Teachers have gone without and done without for a long time,” Cleveland said.

Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, said she’s hopeful lawmakers can reach agreement on a funding model that equalizes the playing field for the state’s districts.

Both the GOP-controlled Senate and the House, where Democrats are in the majority, have budget proposals that would increase education funding and restore cost-of-living raises. The House’s proposal includes a higher cost-of-living adjustment and boosts health benefits for teachers. Neither Republicans nor Democrats suggest immediately addressing Initiative 1351, which voters approved in November, to lower class sizes in all grades. Both Republicans and Democrats propose lowering class sizes in grades K-3.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said that although he’s sympathetic, he doesn’t think the timing of the walkouts makes sense.

“What’s interesting to me, of all the years to strike — we’re going to put $1.3 billion more into education this year,” Harris said.

Maybe, he said, it’s too little too late?

“It doesn’t address six years without cost-of-living adjustments,” he acknowledged. “But I think … at places of employment I’ve been at, I haven’t seen a raise in six years. Times are starting to get better, and we’re going to give a raise. … It’s been some rough years. It doesn’t happen instantaneously.”

Freshman lawmaker Rep. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said she understands teachers’ wanting lawmakers to move swiftly to pass a budget, but a walkout doesn’t seem productive.

“I have been hearing from teachers and teachers unions the whole session,” Wilson said. “We are all well aware of what their issues are. … What they want, there is no secret to that, so I’m not sure them walking out away from the kids will be beneficial.”

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said the state needs to do a better job supporting its teachers.

“The reality is, we are seeing new teachers leave after one year because of pay and working conditions,” Wylie said. “They make more money in entry-level jobs in the private sector. There is a shortage of substitutes. It has been years since they got a raise and they pay for classroom supplies out of pocket. I understand the frustration.”

‘Grass-roots effort’

Some Republicans, including Rivers, have said they believe the strike was planned before lawmakers failed to strike a deal.

“Here’s my thing, I believe this was organized at the union level a long time ago,” Rivers said. “Because I don’t see how, with a 3 percent COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) and the largest single-year investment in K-12 education we have seen in 40 years in this state, the teachers could be griping about what we’re doing.”

Rob Lutz, president of the Evergreen Education Association, dismissed River’s allegation.

“This is a grass-roots effort,” Lutz said.

The last one-day rolling walkout against the Legislature was in 1999, according to Wood, with WEA.

“We have tried several different avenues,” said Lutz.

The people spoke when they approved the lower class size initiative, Lutz said.

The courts spoke when they held lawmakers in contempt for not fully funding education.

Now the unions, he said, will give it a shot.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said he anticipates it will be effective.

For his part, anyway, he said: “Message received.”

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, did not return calls for comment.

Susan Parrish contributed to this report.

Columbian Political Writer