Seattle Teachers Launch First Strike in Three Decades

Professor Wayne Au and Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian discuss the reasons for the strike as the superintendent goes to court to compel teachers back to work

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Teachers in Seattle have launched their first strike in three decades to open up the school year after negotiations broke down between the district officials and teachers union. Last week members of the Seattle Education Association voted unanimously to walk the picket lines if a deal was not reached. Over the weekend some issues were resolved including guaranteeing recess time for elementary school students and offering pay raises for substitute teachers. But the union and school district are still far apart on key issues like length of the school day and compensation, with the district offering 2.2 percent in raises and the union demanding 18 percent.

On Tuesday the Seattle school board authorized the superintendent to pursue legal action to end the strike early. Meanwhile last week in related news, in an unprecedented step, the state supreme court ruled the state’s charter schools unconstitutional because they used public funding but were not held accountable by the elected school board.

Now joining us to discuss all this are two guests from Seattle. Jesse Hagopian is a Seattle Public Schools teacher. He’s an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Social Equality Educators. He’s an editor of the book More Than A Score, and he blogs at IAmAnEducator.com. We’re also joined by Wayne Au. He’s an editor of the social justice teaching magazine Rethinking Schools, associate professor of the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He’s also a plaintiff in that case against charter schools ruled on last week. Thanks both for joining us.

WAYNE AU, ASSOC. PROFESSOR, UNIV. OF WASHINGTON BOTHELL: Thanks a lot.

JESSE HAGOPIAN, SEATTLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS TEACHER: Yeah, thanks for having us here.

NOOR: So Jesse, let’s start with you. You just got back to us from the picket lines at Garfield High where you teach. I wanted to get your response to the superintendent who’s preparing legal action, and the editorial board of the Seattle Times. They called the strike illegal, and they’re saying the strike is the last thing you should be doing right now. The state’s education funding model is in crisis. And they’re saying you’re asking for too much and you risk having a negative effect on broader efforts for education reform in your state. What’s your response?

HAGOPIAN: Well, I think it’s absolutely shameful that Superintendent Nyland would go to a bully tactic and turn to the courts to try to intimidate educators who are the heart and soul of the public education system here in Seattle. And the callous disrespect that he’s shown towards teachers and educational support staff here in Seattle is really remarkable. I mean, the fact that his bargaining team didn’t respond to a single one of what I think is a quite visionary set of bargaining demands until the very end of the summer shows that he was never really serious about entering a bargaining process and coming up with a set of educational policies that could help us achieve a better school system.

And to wait till the last few days of summer to respond, and then he rejected every single one of our proposals from expanding recess, putting caps on counselors’ case loads, to having race and equity teams in every building and reducing standardized testing, all things that are very popular with parents and students and our communities. He flat-out rejected all of these in the last days of summer and then scampers off to the courts to try to look for an injunction and bully teachers back into the classrooms.

NOOR: I want to ask you, Jesse, will the union still be on strike if the pay demands are met but these other social justice demands are not?

HAGOPIAN: Well, I’ll tell you this, I’ll go back to the classroom when I’m respected. I’ll go back to the classroom when my students are respected. And I think that that is the resolve that our bargaining team and the Seattle Education Association has. And when we took a unanimous vote of thousands of educators you can be sure that this union is united around a set of social justice demands to fight for the schools our students deserve.

NOOR: And can you describe the mood at the picket lines this morning at Garfield, which has been a site of battles over teaching and other issues over the years?

HAGOPIAN: It was absolutely electric on the picket line today. Families bringing their kids, spreading out blankets to play with legos and have the kids chant. We had the teachers at Garfield marching for hours, chanting. And the sense of pride that Garfield educators have in this strike I think is really remarkable. Because two years ago the teachers there voted unanimously to refuse to administer the MAP test. And that MAP test boycott spread to several other schools, but it really spread into the union’s bargaining team and helped strengthen the Seattle Education Association and show teachers all over the power of collective action. And I think that lesson was learned during the MAP test boycott and is now being applied in this citywide strike for our children.

NOOR: Now Wayne, I want to bring you in the conversation. What’s your response to the comments you’ve heard from Jesse on the teachers’ strike and their demands that Seattle public school teachers are making right now?

AU: Oh you know, I stand with Jesse and I stand with the Seattle public school teachers. My son is five and a half years old. He’s starting kindergarten this fall. We brought him out to the picket lines, or at least my partner brought him out to the picket lines this morning to show our solidarity with the teachers there.

And really what I think–excuse me. Really what I think is critical here is that the Seattle Education Association is bargaining for quality education. It’s not simply sort of a bread-and-butter type of teachers’ pay sort of bargaining and strike. It’s really about bringing play back to school. It’s really about limiting the effects, the negative effects of high-stakes standardized testing. It’s really about taking on issues around race equity and race justice and public education. And these are issues that bring in the community and the parents, and really shows where the power of what a forward-thinking, more community activist type of union can have in terms of improving education. So it’s ironic to me when folks like the editorial board of the Seattle Times say that a strike like this is going to, it’s going to slow down efforts to improve education when really the heart of the strike is about improving public education for all kids.

NOOR: Now, is this a typical demand for teachers unions to be making, talking about social justice and equity in schools?

AU: I would say it’s not typical nationwide, but it’s becoming more typical because we’re seeing these kinds of movements come through. And I think really the Chicago Teachers Union has been an inspiration for a lot of folks organizing, a lot of unions organizing around the country. And so we’re seeing these kinds of moves happening more and more often.

Because it’s not only–it doesn’t only make for an effective campaign, but it also just shows that unions can and should and do side with the students and the teachers and the communities that they work with on a daily basis. And so we’re seeing it happen more, we’re seeing similar pushes happening, for instance, in Portland, in Los Angeles, in Milwaukee, as well. And the leadership of the unions in some of these places, they’re really taking a step forward to pushing social justice issues and connecting them directly to bargaining agreements.

NOOR: Okay, I want to thank you both for joining us. We’re going to break for a moment and come right back, and discuss the landmark state Supreme Court ruling last week finding Washington State’s charter schools unconstitutional. Join us in a moment.

Part 2

NOOR: Welcome back to the Real News Network. We’re continuing our discussion about the Seattle teachers’ strike which just started today and the overall education reform in Washington State. Last week in an unprecedented step the state Supreme Court rules the state’s charter schools unconstitutional because they used public funding but were not held accountable by the elected school board.

We’re now joined by two guests. Wayne Au is an associate professor at the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell, and is actually a plaintiff in this case. We’re also joined by Jesse Hagopian. He’s a striking teacher at the Seattle Public Schools.

So Wayne, I wanted to bring you into this conversation. You’re a plaintiff in this case about charter schools. It was just ruled on last week. Charter Schools are fairly new in Washington, they’re only about three years old. There’s just nine charter schools in the state serving about 1,200 students. What’s your reaction to the ruling. And the charter schools associations have vowed to remain open even if this means relying on private funding, even though these charter schools were ruled unconstitutional.

AU: Yeah. My personal reaction was actually, was elation. I was very active in sort of fighting against the original initiative, Initiative 1240, which became the charter school law in Washington State several years ago. And then I was glad to get the opportunity to sign on as a plaintiff in the constitutional lawsuit, or in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this charter school law. And then also I was able to provide expert opinion and advice to the law firm that was involved in the case.

And so I was–this has been a long struggle. I’ve invested a lot. Very critical of charter schools and what they do to public education and sort of the, the paradigm that they operate on. And so the ruling itself felt like a, just was a big victory for me personally, but also a big victory for folks who are fighting against the corporate takeover of public education.

NOOR: And Jesse, how does this tie into your fight? The public school teachers are on strike right now, they’re fighting for more resources, for better pay. How does this fit into the overall battle for public education in Washington?

HAGOPIAN: This was a huge victory for public education and for teachers, and it gave the striking teachers a boost of confidence that the corporate education reformers can be challenged and can be beaten back, and you know, the teachers in Seattle are well known for our fight against high-stakes testing. And I think that high-stakes testing and charter schools are two of the biggest components of a corporate reform agenda. Because what they would like to do is reduce the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score that they can then use to punish students and close down schools.

And then what they do, as we’ve seen in places like Chicago, is they close down scores of schools, labeling them failing, and then they reopen schools as privatized charter schools where you have a private board that gets public funding. And it’s anti-democratic and it’s destroying public education, and I’m so grateful to Wayne for helping to lead this fight in the struggle to save public schools.

NOOR: And Wayne, how do you respond to arguments that charter schools are necessary because they have space for innovation, and the public school system is suffering from stagnation? It’s marked by a lack of progress and racial and socioeconomic inequity.

AU: Yeah. You know, I have a litany of possible responses to that. The first piece, though, is around innovation. I think the arguments around charter schools being innovative are actually mostly, they’re mostly false. Charter schools aren’t really being innovative. They do, they’re premised on the argument that you have some deregulation and flexibility. But what we see happening are these major charter chains, for instance, opening up with rote instruction and large classes, using computers as the main instructional tool. Things that aren’t really innovative at all, and in fact are very limiting and not necessarily very effective in terms of working with kids.

The other thing is in terms of, around innovation, is charter schools also–one of the ideas of charter schools originally was, okay, they’re going to innovate and then they’re going to come up with something good, and then they’re going to share that either with each other or with the public school systems. And that just isn’t happening, because they’re premised on a market model of competition for students, and no one wants to innovate and then share what they’re doing with other schools. The other piece I always like to raise around charter schools in particular though, is that when you base something on a market model, and that is predicated on the idea that school closings are a common part of how our reform should operate, and that basically if schools don’t get the customers then they’re just going to close down because they’re “bad schools”, or if they get low test scores.

You can see this whole sort of paradigm around charter schools operating around essentially a small business model. And one of the things I’ve pointed out about the charter school ruling here in Washington State is really, that’s the risk that all these charter operators took by opening their “small business”-like charter schools in Washington State, in the context that they knew the ruling hadn’t been made yet from the Washington State Supreme Court, and as small businesses that’s the risk they took. And then here they are, they’re being shut down by this constitutional ruling.

What’s unfortunate, though, is I’m pretty sure that those charter operators probably didn’t communicate those risks to the students and parents, who are going to get caught in the middle of the situation. But you know, in the end you just have to see that this is, has become such a major victory against the folks who want to create, who want to reshape education around market models of competition and make it business-like.

NOOR: And last question, I know you both have to run. Jesse, back to the picket line. Wayne, I know you have another class to teach in just a few minutes. But Wayne, what about models like Maryland’s charter school model, which is considered one of the more progressive in the country? Charters are allowed to unionize, and they fall under the jurisdiction of the school board, which here in Baltimore City is unelected.

AU: Yeah. Personally I’ve got to say I’m not familiar with the details around Baltimore, or Maryland. And so I don’t feel comfortable speaking to that particular situation. But with regards to the unionization issue around charter schools, charter advocates are always quick to say, you know, we allow unionization. But then you look at the actual numbers of unionized charter schools, and you’re maybe talking, I don’t know, five, ten percent of charter teachers are unionized. Because charter schools actually rely on young teachers, they rely on a turnover of a young teaching force in order to make their finances work. And that doesn’t really jive well with unions that respect teachers’ right to fair wages and due process.

The other thing is this. You know, there’s part–I would say the bigger piece of this argument is, say, that there’s folks who have opened a lot of, what do they call, community-based charters that are maybe more progressive or more radical than these corporate charters. And I feel that. There’s a lot of people who our public school systems, our big public school systems, clearly when we look at stuff around say, for instance, race and economic class, are not meeting the needs of our kids of color, of our working class kids of color, and we need to be dealing with that. And so I see folks opening community-based charters in response to that and I respect and understand that piece.

But what I don’t like is that those same community-based charters essentially end up providing cover for the broad-based corporate attack on public education. And I don’t see those folks actually speaking out against the broader charter movement and trying to reclaim it in the name of public education. And so it gets very complicated for me around how to sort through the politics of these folks. I recognize those community-based charters, but you have to understand that the charter movement as a whole, no matter how progressive you’re going to make your individual charter, is about an attack on public education, an attack on unions, an attack on public schools. And really, an attack on public anything.

NOOR: All right. I want to thank you both for joining us.

HAGOPIAN: Thanks so much for having us on.

AU: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you, our viewers, for watching the Real News.

End

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