A recent letter to the Herald chastises teachers for the one-day walk-outs that occurred around our state. The big complaint was that it inconvenienced parents, who are stressed finding childcare, while teachers are striking for more money (cost of living increases). But these strikes were not really about paychecks, though that is part of it
It is about the integrity of Washington’s public education system, which is eroding alarmingly, and the long-term consequences for our children, their futures and, inevitably, our state. And much of this erosion can be attributed not to districts, teachers or parents, but strangely enough, to our elected officials.
Our Legislature and Congress have increased educational requirements and mandates for states, districts, teachers and students incrementally over the last 15 years in an effort to improve public education. These mandates are not all bad, but they have been poorly funded, if funded at all. They legally require districts to implement new credit requirements, new teacher evaluation systems, and multiplying numbers of standardized tests, which often punish schools monetarily for underperformance or non-compliance. And these mandates are expensive, requiring additional staffing time, materials, training and technical support to implement. And for every major testing change — about one every five years, so far — there are necessary shifts in curriculum, with new materials and staff training needed, which can cost millions of dollars for larger districts. Since these are legal mandates, district funding is prioritized to fulfill them, eliminating spending on things like counselors, teachers and student services.
At the same time that legislative requirements have been increasing, legislative funding for education has failed to keep pace with the changes, and the increased operating costs of districts. Caught in the nexus of this “perfect storm,” districts have been forced to keep staffing at a minimum: Support staff like custodians and kitchen workers have all been cut to the bone. Teacher and administrative staffing has been constricted, creating larger class sizes, less supervision and ever-increasing workloads.
With schools and classrooms increasingly overcrowded and underfunded, teachers and districts have pursued every possible means to pressure the state Legislature to meet it’s constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” of providing “amply” for public education. We have passed three voter initiatives on these issues, and gone to the state Supreme Court — twice — and won in order to coerce our Legislature to meet its obligations. All of these efforts have been suspended, ignored or delayed. With constitutional remedies proving ineffective, teachers feel that strikes, as unpleasant as they are for everyone, are the only means left to try and change this dynamic.
So here are the real reasons for striking: It is beyond debate that kids in current class sizes of 30 to 40 receive less teacher time and attention than those in classes of 18 to 28, which recent state Supreme Court decisions have required. This translates directly into less academic success for many kids. Teachers are angry that they are being evaluated on “evidence”— like test scores — of student academic growth, while the resources needed to make that happen are rapidly disappearing. It is beyond debate that classroom instructional time with students is being lost when we need it the most, given the current legislatively-induced “test-mania,” which enforces higher and higher standards of proof for graduation. As an example, in my high school, 24 of the last 31 school days feature standardized tests or finals taken by large groups of students during the school day. It is also beyond debate that good, well-educated, but poorly paid and supported employees will seek work elsewhere when they can’t pay their bills, as is the case for many teachers. With teacher morale at a new low, many are planning to leave the profession sooner than previously planned, and fewer candidates are signing up to enter it. The current lack of substitute teachers is just one indicator of a rapidly developing state-wide teacher shortage, which is occurring just when we have record numbers of new students entering our schools, and large numbers of experienced teachers retiring out.
Teachers, who work directly under these conditions and see their impacts first hand, are working hard to blunt the worst effects on our students, but we need help. If we are going to maintain a quality public education system for all students in our state, our legislators must provide the “ample” funding required, and find the political courage to provide sustainable revenue sources, as our state constitution requires.
We are asking everyone who values educational opportunity and our children’s futures, to join us in supporting our cause for better and more sustainably funded public schools. The inconvenience of a strike may mean a few days of childcare hassles, but in the long run, it might provide both our children and our state with a healthier, happier and better-educated citizenry to meet the challenges of the 21st century — a goal worth fighting for.
Ann Morgan is an Everett resident and a teacher in the Everett School District.
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