It was to the relief of all that a teachers strike was averted last week in Evergreen Public Schools. After months of negotiations, teachers overwhelmingly approved a contract proposal, allowing the school year to begin as scheduled.
This, in the end, was the best possible outcome for teachers, administrators, parents and — most important — students. Delaying the start of the school year would have placed a difficult burden upon all parties and would have generated acrimony that can take years for a district to overcome. So, kudos are warranted for the negotiators who arrived at a palatable agreement, and to teachers for approving that agreement. But there are some lingering thoughts as the school year kicks into its normal routine.
One is that the threat of a strike was not solely about an effort to put more money in the pockets of teachers. News reports highlighted five areas of disagreement that led to prolonged negotiations and the prospect of a strike: Curriculum, an area that was quickly agreed upon; salary and benefits competitive with other large districts; increased support for special education students; additional counselors and support services; and higher pay for substitute teachers in order to ensure adequate fill-ins.
It should be noted that four of these five items directly impact the educational experience for students — and in the long run, equitable pay and benefits for teachers also impacts students by allowing the Evergreen district to attract and retain quality instructors. While teachers often come under fire from those who view teachers unions as self-serving, the truth is that a vast majority of educators are deeply invested in providing a quality learning experience for children.
Another item of note is the fact that teacher strikes are illegal in Washington — as they are in a majority of states. Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna wrote last year: “They are not allowed under state law. The same goes for all public employees at the state and local level. The reason doesn’t matter. They’re not legal as a protest. They’re not legal for collective bargaining purposes. They’re not legal under any circumstances. Union leaders know this.”
But union leaders are not averse to putting themselves above the law; in 2015, four districts in Washington had the school year interrupted by strikes. And that does not include a one-day protest strike in dozens of districts in an attempt to send a message to the Legislature about school funding. The reason for outlawing teacher strikes is that it gives the courts the power to implement penalties that often help break an impasse. As The Seattle Times reported in 2015, “Once a judge schedules fines or other penalties for defiant teachers found in contempt of a court order, strikes typically are resolved.”
Fortunately, the Evergreen situation did not reach that point, although a judge did hand down a preemptive injunction delaying a possible strike. But while the district and its teachers have come to an agreement, plenty of questions remain about Washington’s education system. Many of those questions revolve around the Legislature’s inattention to the state Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in McCleary v. Washington, which mandated full funding of K-12 education.
That is a topic that is certain to dominate next year’s legislative session, and lawmakers should begin working on it as soon as the ink is dry on this November’s election results. While teachers and administrators in Evergreen can, thankfully, go to work as scheduled, legislators should start thinking about doing the same.