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The Seattle Educators’ Strike

The Seattle Educators’ Strike

Don Eaton

On Sept. 20, 2015, thousands of Seattle Education Association (SEA) members voted to approve a new contract with the Seattle Public Schools. The vote officially ended the strike, which delayed the first five days of school.

The new contract contains many hard-fought wins for social justice:

  • An end to the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations—a huge blow to the testocracy in Seattle and across the country. This victory built on the years-long struggle of educators, students, and parents in Seattle in opposition to high-stakes tests.
  • A guaranteed minimum of 30 minutes recess in every elementary school. Recess has been vanishing in Seattle’s schools, particularly those that serve low-income students and students of color. The campaign for recess was launched by a citywide organization, Lunch and Recess Matter, which organized, petitioned, and rallied for the right to eat and play.
  • Enforceable caseload caps for educational support associates, such as school psychologists and speech language pathologists, who provide vital support to some of our most vulnerable students.
  • Race and equity teams. This demand was supported by Black Lives Matter activists, including Seattle NAACP members who issued a statement supporting the strike. The school district originally agreed to teams in only six schools, but the power of the strike pushed the district to agree to anti-racism committees in 30 schools. Given that Seattle schools suspend African American students at four times the rate of white students for the same infractions, it is clear that every school in the city needs to organize actively against inequality and racism.

But the most important outcome of the strike won’t be found in the fine print of the agreement. The true triumph of this contract battle was the solidarity—between teachers, office professionals, nurses, school librarians, instructional assistants, parents, and community organizations—in the struggle for public schools.

Thousands of parents supported the strike, including the Soup for Teachers group that formed to bring sustenance and solidarity to picket lines at every school in the district. The Coalition for the Schools Seattle Deserves united community organizations and joined singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson to host a benefit concert for the striking teachers. The Seattle City Council, led by councilmember Kshama Sawant, passed a unanimous resolution in support of the strike. Marching band students used their pep-band anthems to root on striking educators, and local businesses donated to the picket lines. Even the mainstream media reported that parents were in support of the strike, and that the educators were winning.

With a visionary set of demands and the overwhelming support of the parents, students, community, and even city officials, it was disappointing that the union ended the strike before we achieved all we could at the bargaining table. Seattle is among the nation’s top 10 cities for highest cost of living. Teachers have not had a cost of living increase in six years, and are increasingly unable to live in the city where we teach. It was a mistake to agree to raises ranging from 3 percent the first year to 4.5 percent the third, which won’t even offset rising healthcare costs. School nurses will still have to split their time among several schools and won’t be able to provide the care that students deserve. We achieved lower student-to-teacher ratios in some preschool and special education programs, but the special education Access Program caseload increased by 30 percent. With the old ratios, Access students were able to participate in general education curriculum and settings with support; the new ratios put the inclusion model in jeopardy and will overwhelm Access case managers. We also acceded to the district’s demand to lengthen the school day by 20 minutes, reducing teacher planning time. With more focus on mass rallies uniting teachers and parents, I believe we could have won even more victories.

Nonetheless, the strike went a long way toward transforming the union, city politics, and the labor movement for the better. So many educators, parents, students, and community members, in Seattle and around the nation, understand the issues that we face in education so much better as a result of this struggle. With many more parents made aware of the dangers of over-testing by this strike, the opt-out movement in Seattle will be massive this spring. The issue of disproportionate discipline as a component of the school-to-prison-pipeline has now been exposed in our city and I believe this will help embolden the Black Lives Matter movement in the coming months. Many in our city have been made aware of the need to fully fund our schools at the state level; I am confident that teachers, parents, and students will collaborate more than ever in challenging the state legislature to live up to its constitutional duty to provide the resources needed to run our schools. ◼

—By Jesse Hagopian