Washington State Teachers On Strike
Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian says the proposed state budget would benefit neither teachers nor students
DHARNA NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore.
Thousands of public school teachers went on strikes across nine Washington State school districts on Wednesday. These single-day strikes are part of a protest against the new state budget proposal. The teachers, who are members of a union called the Washington Education Association, are demanding smaller class sizes, better compensation, and less testing. Teachers of other districts are set to strike this Friday.
Joining us from Seattle to discuss these strikes is Jesse Hagopian. Jessie teaches history and is also the black student union advisor at Garfield High School, where teachers just voted to join the strike. Jesse is an associate editor of the acclaimed magazine Rethinking Schools. He’s also a founding member of Social Equality Educators. He blogs at I’mAnEducator.com and is the editor of More than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.
Jesse, thank you so much for joining us today.
JESSE HAGOPIAN, SEATTLE TEACHER: Oh it’s a pleasure to be here, and especially to talk about this new uprising for justice and for education in our state.
NOOR: So Jesse, among some of the critics of the strikes are the state Republicans and also the Seattle Times editorial board. They’re among those who support the proposed $1.3 budget that would be provided with no additional taxes. And according to Republican representative Chad Magendanz, these would be the highest shares of the budget spent on education in the last 30 years. So why are teachers rejecting this proposal?
HAGOPIAN: Well, because we stand on the side of what’s lawful. And in fact, the state supreme court has ruled in the McCleary decision in Washington State that our state legislature is failing their constitutional duty to support and fully fund education. As it states in our state supreme court and our state constitution, education is the paramount duty of the state. And this state has failed to fully provide for adequate funding for our schools.
You know, the state only actually funds five periods a day, but we have six. The state has cut transportation spending, and we’ve seen these cutbacks year in and year out, whether it’s mass layoffs or it’s what happened at my son’s school this year, where we did not have enough money for the counselor. And so the school principal decided they were going to have to cut spending on all of the school supplies and teachers would no longer have access to paper or pencils, or the basic [supply] in the school, so that we could keep our school counselor, a vital component of our school that provides for the social and emotional well-being of our students.
And these are the tough choices that school districts around the state have had to make for too long. And what we’re saying is, follow the direction. Follow the court order that the Supreme Court has declared. And in fact, the legislature has shown that they’re willfully neglecting the law, and the Supreme Court had to go farther and say that the legislature is in contempt of court.
And so we’re saying, what we are doing in this one-day rolling strike around Washington State is actually upholding the law. The radical action is the one being taken by lawless legislature–legislators actually in both parties who are refusing to fully fund education.
NOOR: Another one of the issues raised by the striking teachers and empathizers is testing. They claim that testing is excessive and detrimental to learning, but proponents of testing say it’s an important way to check if teachers are making progress with their students. Are teachers just trying to avoid accountability?
HAGOPIAN: Absolutely not. There are some state legislators who have said that they will only increase funding for our public schools if teachers submit to having our evaluations linked to test scores. And in fact, that is not what the Supreme Court has mandated. The Supreme Court has mandated fully fund education, and fully fund it now. And that’s what teachers are standing up for.
And we reject this corporate education reform narrative being pushed by what I call the testocracy, which is made up of multi-billion dollar testing companies and other elites who say that in order to have proper accountability we have to reduce education to the ability to eliminate wrong answer choices. And we as educators reject that false narrative, and we know that actually these tests are narrowing the curriculum. These tests are reducing the intellectual process of teaching and learning to a single number that they then use to punish our schools. They use to deny kids graduation. They use to tie teacher pay and evaluation to, or they use to label schools failing so that they can shut them down like they have in Chicago and Philadelphia with scores of schools being closed.
These test scores really have nothing to do with supporting public education. And we know that the voters here in Washington State just passed Initiative 1351, which calls for lowering class size. Because parents know that that would be one of the most important reforms to implement in the public schools so that the students receive the individual attention that they deserve. And the state legislature is willfully neglecting the democratic view of the state of Washington and our voters, and saying we are going to refuse to fully fund 1351 and reduce class size, and instead we’re going to move towards scientifically unsound and pedagogically flawed high-stakes standardized testing. And I’m proud to say that our state is currently in the largest uprising against these kinds of tests in U.S. history.
So it’s not just teachers refusing these tests. We see 180,000 parents in New York State alone refusing these tests. In my own city of Seattle, I’m proud to say that we have more parents opting their kids out of these detrimental exams than have ever happened in Seattle’s history. At my own high school so many parents refuse to let their students take the new Common Core test that the test actually is no longer being administered by the teachers, and just individual students are being pulled out to take it.
So I think that the corporate reformers have pushed this high-stakes testing for too long, and now parents, students, and teachers are joining together to redefine assessment and to fight for authentic forms of assessment.
NOOR: So switching gears a little bit, you spoke to some of the hard choices that parents and teachers have had to make. I’m wondering, if there isn’t enough money in the budget for increased pay or more jobs or better facilities, then doesn’t this mean that teachers necessarily have to work with less if they want more to be spent on students?
HAGOPIAN: Well, I think teachers have rejected that, that false dichotomy. Teachers at Lakewood who went out on a one-day strike first–and you know, at my high school we just voted that we were in favor of joining the strike, and votes are being taken across Seattle. Soon, I think, our district is also going to join in the strike because we know that we live in one of the richest regions in the history of the world. We have Amazon. We have Boeing. We have Microsoft. We have Starbucks. We have more wealth in this area than any place ever, anywhere on the planet. There is plenty of money. It’s a question of priorities.
I went down with a group of people from the Social Equality Educators into the House Ways and Means Committee meeting where they were getting ready to cut $2 billion from the state healthcare and education budget. And we actually staged a citizen’s arrest. We said, it’s not just that we know that this is morally wrong, it actually goes against our state constitution. And you have to come up and find the money, and we actually read out the Constitution on the floor of the House Ways and Means Committee. I issued out citizen’s arrest warrants to those legislators. And unfortunately the officer didn’t agree with my interpretation of the law, and he arrested me.
And I spent the evening in jail, but my students at Garfield High School saw this on the news and took it upon themselves to independently organize a mass walkout of Garfield High School. And they pointed out that the lack of funding has meant that there aren’t summer school programs for students in the Seattle Schools. So that when kids fall behind in credits they have no way to make them up. They pointed out that science and language services have been cut so that there’s no longer four years offered. And they detailed what these cuts have done, and they marched to City Hall with these demands. And I think we should stand with these courageous students and teachers around the state who are saying, you need to find the money, in one of the world’s richest regions.
And people should know that Washington State is one of the few states left in the entire nation that does not have a state income tax. And that would be one of the quickest ways to solve this problem. Have a progressive income tax where you basically only tax millionaires, and that would raise the funds in the snap of a finger to provide the education that all of our students deserve.
NOOR: So could you speak a little bit more to that? Could you describe a little bit more of a budget that would be in the best interest of teachers and students?
HAGOPIAN: Absolutely. You know, the McCleary decision issued by the state Supreme Court mandates that our legislature add many billions of dollars to the education budget. And I don’t believe that that money should be taken out of the other vital services that our state provides, whether it’s healthcare or it’s higher education. I think that there’s plenty of money in this state to provide for all the basic needs of our citizenry, and all the people that live in Washington State. And I think what that would look like is implementing a progressive income tax, or at very minimum, bare first step, closing the tax loopholes that exist in our state.
You know, of course we have a sales tax in our state. But the sales tax doesn’t apply to private jets. So if you buy a piece of candy at the store, you’re going to pay sales tax. But if you buy a private jet, right, then you’re exempt. And it’s about a basic fairness in our state, a basic tax fairness that would allow for the full operating of our schools. In Seattle, the school district cut funding to every single elementary school counselor. And at the same time, our city and county is getting ready to build a new youth jail for $200 million.
So we see that the priorities of our region have put the building of a youth prison and the slashing of education funding–and basically what is going on is the construction of a school-to-prison pipeline, where kids lack the support services, the counseling services they need to nurture them to be successful in school, to overcome problems they face maybe outside of school, and then they ready the jail bed facilities for these kids. And I think those priorities are exactly backwards. We need to flood the schools with the resources that they deserve.
And I would suggest that the corporate education reformers, people like Bill Gates that live here, would do far better to pay income tax and let the state use that money to help all the schools rather than using their private foundations to push unproven high-stakes testing regimes. And you know, Bill Gates sends his kids to Lakeside. And I think that tells a lot about what his values are. You know, he graduated from Lakeside, his kids go to this wonderful elite private school.
And what do they value in education there? They value small class sizes, right? A 1:14 ratio with teacher able to give individual attention. They value critical thinking in the classroom over high-stakes testing. In fact, they don’t use the Common Core curriculum, and they don’t use the Common Core assessments and tests. They value the arts, they have amazing performing arts and visual arts programs, and study abroad opportunities, and a library with tens of thousands of volumes.
And we believe that what’s good enough for Bill Gates’s kid is good enough for all of our children in Washington State, and it’s time that the super-rich began paying their fair share of taxes in this state so that everybody can thrive.
NOOR: Well Jesse, thank you so much for joining us. And we’ll certainly be keeping our eyes on Seattle in the weeks to come.
HAGOPIAN: I appreciate you having me on the show. Thank you very much, I look forward to this collective uprising.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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