It’s been about a week since the dust has settled on teacher strikes across Washington state.
This year’s heated negotiation season, which began and remained centered in Clark County for several weeks, resulted in double-digit percentage increases for many teachers. Teachers have described the weeks on the picket lines and the resulting raises as life-changing, and one of the best opportunities to collaborate with their fellow teachers they’ve ever had.
Districts remain stalwart behind the assertion, however, that the multimillion-dollar contracts will drive them to dip into their reserves. Some project significant deficits in the years to come.
But the long-term implications of labor activity, spurred on new education funding, are likely to take months or even years to unfold. Here are three takeaways from this year’s teacher strikes.
Why Southwest Washington?
It’s a question that has even education leaders scratching their heads: Why Southwest Washington? What happened here?
According to Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood, 15 school districts saw their teachers strike. But nowhere was that more concentrated than in Southwest Washington, where teachers at seven districts picketed for higher salaries.
Districts throughout the strike maintained it was the result of inequities in the McCleary legislation, which last year injected $7.3 billion in new state funding for schools to be spread over four years, followed by another $1 billion this year for teacher salaries. The funding relies on a levy swap, which hiked state school property tax rates while capping local levy rates. Property-poor districts like Battle Ground Public Schools and Evergreen Public Schools, that have historically relied heavily on local levies for school funding, argued that when the cap goes into effect next year, their revenues will decline significantly, with long-term budget deficits projected within four years.
Wood, however, doesn’t buy that.
“The vast, vast majority of school districts were able to negotiate competitive pay raises without teachers going on strike,” Wood said. “That was by far the norm. What we did see in many of the districts where teachers did go on strike was an incredible lack of respect for teachers and their students from school board members.”
The state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, offered a more tempered suggestion.
The McCleary legislation includes increases for allocated dollars depending on where districts are located, called the regionalization factor. Schools in the Puget Sound area, for example, received an 18 percent boost to their allocation due to high housing costs in the region. Most Clark County schools, meanwhile, saw a regionalization factor of only 6 percent. With the nearby Portland housing market, that may have been an underestimation of the support districts need to pay teachers, and of the salaries teachers need to afford housing, Reykdal suggested. That needs to be addressed in coming legislative sessions, he said.
“I do think the lack of adequate regionalization dollars down there hurt them,” he said.
Political future of teachers
In what was perhaps the earliest and best-attended campaign announcement for a school board race in recent memory, Fort Vancouver High School English and theater teacher Bethany Rivard this month announced she would run for Evergreen Public Schools board of directors next year.
“We have entire school boards and superintendents with minimal to no direct teaching experience,” Rivard told a crowd at Esther Short Park gathered at a rally for striking teachers. “Educators know how those decisions affect the students in their classroom.”
Rivard, who will run against incumbent Rob Perkins, a software developer, is the first teacher to announce her candidacy for public office in light of summer strikes. She hopes she won’t be the last.
“We do have a unique perspective on education policy, because we live the experience on a daily basis,” Rivard said. “It’s a matter of theory versus reality on the ground.”
Wood said contract negotiations proved “how important it is to have pro-teacher supporters on the school board.”
Perkins disagreed with the pro-teacher, anti-teacher binary presented by Wood.
“It isn’t about making enemies,” he said. “It’s about helping kids. The point we always made is that we want to compensate and support teachers as much as the state and taxes will allow.”
Perkins was appointed to his position in 2014 and was re-elected in an uncontested race in 2015. That means this will be the first time he’s run opposed for the school board position. That means campaigning and fundraising to a degree he hasn’t yet faced.
He anticipates more interest in this race than in recent years, with school board candidates likely having to answer more questions about the district’s budget, as well as the strikes.
“Having the conversation is better than not,” he said.
What’s next in Olympia
There were a few talking points from area superintendents and school boards that became familiar as strikes continued in Southwest Washington.
The McCleary legislation created funding inequities between districts. Clark County will be disproportionately affected by levy caps. The Legislature failed to provide a funding structure that would prevent heated union negotiations.
Southwest Washington legislators who were key negotiators in the McCleary legislation, however, disagree.
“If there were inequities, they existed beforehand,” said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, who was a member of the eight-legislator panel that authored the McCleary legislation.
Harris, who spoke to The Columbian when all but Battle Ground Public Schools had settled, said the only inequities that may exist are a result of local levy caps, which are supposed to be spent on enhancements rather than on basic education. But Reykdal instructed districts to dip into those local dollars to fund special education programs if state dollars do not cover the costs, and several local districts this year ended up spending levy dollars to provide the negotiated raises.
“I think the local levy caps may be looked at again,” he said.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, was another member of that group. She maintained the McCleary legislation capped teacher raises at a 3.1 percent inflation adjustment in the first year, and criticized Reykdal, in part, for the “many numbers floating around.”
“I believe [teachers] are not getting the full story as they’re moving forward on their decision making,” she said.
Still, Reykdal, an elected Democrat, has a wish list of changes to the McCleary legislation, like increasing basic education allocations for special education, and allowing districts to collect local levies above the $1.50 per thousand in assessed value cap that goes into effect next year.
“I think we did cut levies too deeply,” he said.
Both legislators called the McCleary fix an imperfect solution to school funding in Washington, but said it made significant improvements.
“I think we are poised to get the rest of the things squared away,” Rivers said.