30,000 Teachers Walk Out in Protest of Big Class Sizes in Washington State

Mario Vasquez June 1, 2015

Since late April, Washington state teachers have been striking for reduced class sizes and better funding for classroom programs. (Washington Educators Association / Facebook)

On Tues­day, May 19, thou­sands of demon­stra­tors marched through down­town Seat­tle to sup­port a rolling strike by pub­lic school teach­ers across Wash­ing­ton state. The teach­ers are protest­ing what they say are unac­cept­ably high class sizes and low pay, stem­ming from their state legislature’s fail­ure to ful­ly fund pub­lic education.

Six thou­sand teach­ers and sup­port­ers from Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools and the near­by dis­tricts of Mer­cer Island and Issaquah shut down inter­sec­tions for blocks in the largest coor­di­nat­ed action since the rolling walk­out began on April 22. In total, at least 30,000 teach­ers in 65 strik­ing school dis­tricts have par­tic­i­pat­ed in one-day strikes.

Wash­ing­ton Edu­ca­tors Asso­ci­a­tion (WEA), the statewide teach­ers union (a Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion affil­i­ate), has point­ed out that the state has the sixth-high­est stu­dent-teacher ratio of any state, at 19.4, accord­ing to NEA data from 2013. The union cal­cu­lates that an addi­tion­al 11,960 teach­ers would be need­ed to reduce the stu­dent-teacher ratio to the nation­al aver­age of 15.9. Class sizes are typ­i­cal­ly about nine or 10 stu­dents larg­er than the stu­dent-teacher ratio. Teach­ers say that big class sizes in Wash­ing­ton state result in poor work­ing and learn­ing conditions.

The strike is unusu­al in that the teach­ers are not pres­sur­ing their respec­tive school dis­tricts, but rather tar­get­ing the state leg­is­la­ture for its unwill­ing­ness to fund edu­ca­tion enough to decrease class sizes and increase teacher com­pen­sa­tion. Pop­u­lar signs at ral­lies across the state have read Edu­ca­tors care for our kids every day — It’s time the leg­is­la­ture cared” and On strike against leg­is­la­ture — stop blam­ing teach­ers — start fund­ing schools.”

On the class size and fund­ing issue, union mem­bers say they have both the courts and the vot­ers on their side. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled in McCleary vs. Wash­ing­ton that the leg­is­la­ture had failed in its con­sti­tu­tion­al duty to amply pro­vide for the edu­ca­tion of all chil­dren with­in its bor­ders” and ordered it to imple­ment ade­quate fund­ing increas­es by 2018. Last Sep­tem­ber, the Wash­ing­ton Supreme Court found the leg­is­la­ture in con­tempt of court for fail­ing to pro­vide the court a com­plete plan for ful­ly imple­ment­ing its pro­gram of basic edu­ca­tion,” warn­ing law­mak­ers that the leg­is­la­ture would be sanc­tioned” if it did not devel­op a plan by the end of the leg­isla­tive cycle.

Com­pound­ing this legal pres­sure is the bind­ing ini­tia­tive 1351 approved by vot­ers in Novem­ber 2014, which calls for a 20 per­cent reduc­tion in class size and the hir­ing of 15,000 teach­ers over the next four years, accord­ing to advo­cates of the initiative.

While both leg­is­la­tures have put for­ward pro­pos­als to fund class size decreas­es up to the third grade, none have pro­posed ful­ly fund­ing ini­tia­tive 1351. Gov. Jay Inslee has called for two con­sec­u­tive spe­cial ses­sions to address the fund­ing issue and oth­er bud­getary mat­ters before a July 1 dead­line. If they don’t resolve the bud­get, leg­is­la­tors risk a gov­ern­ment shut­down.

Jesse Hagopi­an, a his­to­ry teacher at Garfield High, says that teach­ers’ backs are to the wall,” neces­si­tat­ing col­lec­tive action.

The old strat­e­gy of sup­port­ing politi­cians and hop­ing that they will enact pro-edu­ca­tion poli­cies has not worked for so long that it has actu­al­ly caused a state of cri­sis for our union as a whole,” he says. It’s reached a lev­el of absur­di­ty. I think [lack of sup­port from the leg­is­la­ture] made [WEA] lead­er­ship more will­ing to back some of our small­er locals that began this one-day strike wave in the state.”

The strikes have been pri­mar­i­ly orga­nized by teach­ers union locals, rather than by the statewide union. On the eve of the first strikes in late April, a WEA spokesper­son told Washington’s News Tri­bune that it was up to locals to decide how big the protest gets this year.” What began with eight dis­tricts has now swelled to 65.

The legislature’s unwill­ing­ness to go ful­ly fund I‑1351 and adhere to McCleary has gal­va­nized teacher in a way that Susan DuFresne, a kinder­garten teacher at Maple­wood Heights Ele­men­tary, describes as tru­ly grassroots.”

I place this strike wave at the tip­ping point in the strug­gle between pro­gres­sive edu­ca­tion reform and cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reform,” DuFresne says. This strug­gle has a long way to go to edu­cate and acti­vate stu­dents, par­ents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers — but this strike wave is final­ly bring­ing atten­tion to this strug­gle in are­nas we call the non-choir.’ ”

Hagopi­an, who is part of the social jus­tice-based reform cau­cus Social Equal­i­ty Edu­ca­tors and last year came 45 votes shy of being elect­ed Seat­tle teach­ers’ union pres­i­dent, says the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton is Robin Hood in reverse.”

Low­er­ing class sizes costs mon­ey, and to raise that mon­ey you would have to actu­al­ly tax the rich,” he told In These Times. We’re one of sev­en states in the nation that don’t have an income tax and one of only nine states in the coun­try that don’t have a cap­i­tal gains tax.”

Indeed, Wash­ing­ton has the nation’s most regres­sive tax struc­ture, accord­ing to a study pub­lished in Jan­u­ary by the Insti­tute on Tax­a­tion and Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy. The study found that the state’s top 1% con­tributes 2.4 per­cent of fam­i­ly income in state and local tax­es while the poor­est 20 per­cent con­tribute 16.8 per­cent, mak­ing Wash­ing­ton the high­est-tax state in the coun­try for poor people.”

Mean­while, the state’s largest cor­po­ra­tions have received eye-pop­ping tax breaks in recent years: In 2014, Boe­ing was award­ed the sin­gle largest tax break a state has ever giv­en a com­pa­ny: an $8.7 bil­lion cut. Microsoft report­ed­ly avoid­ed $528 mil­lion in state tax­es between 1997 and 2008 due to lax leg­isla­tive over­sight con­cern­ing the com­pa­ny report­ing its rev­enue through its licens­ing office in Neva­da, despite bas­ing its soft­ware pro­duc­tion in Washington.

At the same time, law­mak­ers have sus­pend­ed vot­er-approved cost-of-liv­ing increas­es for edu­ca­tors every year since 2008. Washington’s teacher pay now ranks 42nd in the nation. Teach­ers also say that leg­is­la­tures are under­min­ing their job secu­ri­ty by intro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion that would tie state stan­dard­ized tests to teacher eval­u­a­tions. This has helped push hun­dreds of edu­ca­tors and stu­dents across Seat­tle high schools to boy­cott the tests, plac­ing the city at the van­guard of a larg­er emerg­ing wave of test boy­cotts across the coun­try.

WEA mem­bers say that if leg­is­la­tors don’t resolve fund­ing issues by the end of the sec­ond spe­cial leg­isla­tive ses­sion, rolling strike waves will begin again when school begins in Sep­tem­ber. Hagopi­an expects even wider sup­port from teach­ers at that time.

I can’t imag­ine that after feel­ing the col­lec­tive pow­er that we found in the streets on Tues­day when we walked out, that teach­ers would just go qui­et­ly back into the class­room and sub­mit to the humil­i­a­tion of being in one of the rich­est regions the world has ever known and see­ing kids come to school with­out basic sup­plies and bal­loon­ing class sizes,” he says.

Mario Vasquez is a writer from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @mario_vsqz or email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_JkRTuBCpnw’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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