In August and September of 2018, 7,000 teachers in Western Washington went on strike, pushing back the beginning of the school year for weeks in some districts. They were bravely opposing their districts in order to get higher wages and more resources for their students.
Why would teachers refuse to do the job that they love and risk diminishing the education time of students? Because, in this instance, it had become absolutely necessary. Not only were the school districts retaining money that was supposed to go to teachers, therefore being greedy to a point in which it was harming students and teachers, but they were also not fulfilling their legal obligations. The school districts in Washington have eight requirements they must meet in order to meet legality, but only reached seven, the unmet one being an appropriate teacher salary. The districts were provided the adequate funds to accomplish all of these requirements and did not do so. Instead, they offered some teachers as low as a 1% raise. For example, Jocelyn Pratt, a special education teacher in Washougal, Washington explains that her district should have been providing a 26% increase in salary, but instead provided a 1% raise and implemented a pay cut to new teachers. “The SW Washington Clark County area is kind of famous for dragging their feet and not doing what they need to support their teachers,” says Wendy Joy, a teacher in the Battleground School District, one of the historically lowest paid and among some of the last districts to remain on strike. Joy explains the lead up to this strike and the previous contract negotiations in Battleground. “Last year, we discussed our contract and we agreed to start school while we were still negotiating. It did not get settled until April…we’ve continued to [cooperate] and continued to sacrifice and we just can’t do it anymore because they don’t respect us…If we work without a contract, we end up losing money because they are banking interest on this money they are not giving us.” The districts had seemingly no reason to withhold a fair salary. This series of strikes is in direct response to the McCleary Court Case (2007) in which the Supreme Court set a precedent on how much money needs to be put into education.
The money being deprived from these teachers is perpetuating a system in which teachers work more and are more educated than in the past but still receive the same, unlivable wage. Because of this, their hours can be intense and several teachers need to have more than one job, even if they have a master’s degree. Washington has the sixth highest pay gap in education. “There’s no such thing as a 40 hour work week when it comes to being an educator. I work at least 75 hours a week, and if you divide what I make by the time I actually work, it comes out to be about 13 dollars an hour, and I have a master’s degree,” says Joy.
While on strike, the teachers received assistance and support from their communities. Depending on the district, businesses put up signs, parents walked the picket line and brought food and water, and some community members raised funds. As of now, all strikes have ceased and teachers have gone back to work. In most cases the teachers reached an agreement with their district, but in others the teachers were ordered by a court to return.
Teachers should not have to be fighting to get the money that they are owed. Districts should not retain money that they have been told must go to teachers. While this was a recent phenomenon in Washington, teacher strikes occurs frequently in every state (most commonly Pennsylvania). This is especially unreasonable when it is considered that part of what teachers are fighting for is the success of students. For example, lower class sizes mean more individual attention and help with each student. This year, Portland Public Schools claimed teachers would not have a class load over 160 students, yet it is not uncommon for them to be over 170. When districts respect their teachers, they help students, and when districts provide unlivable wages and lie about regulations, they harm students as well as teachers.