What the Teachers’ Strike Taught Seattle Parents

Several months have elapsed since educators in Seattle Public Schools picketed in the district’s inaugural strike in three decades.

The Seattle Education Association (SEA), which advocates for 5,000 educators, engaged in discussions regarding topics such as assessments, break time, educator compensation, and duration of the academic day while students were absent for a total of six complete school days–the initial days of the academic calendar.

Changes are underway in Seattle, as a longer school day, lasting 20 minutes more, is set to begin in 2017. A committee, consisting of district officials and teachers, will assess the district’s efforts towards achieving equity. The student-teacher ratios in certain special education programs will be increased. Furthermore, teachers will experience a salary increase starting this year.

The breaking stalemate over school funding issues in the state potentially has led parents to demand and discuss changes to state and district policies more vocally than they have in the past, both in meetings and on social media. However, these shifts in the education landscape of Seattle have also resulted in fundamental changes that are less transparent.

Some students, in order to ensure recess, even went as far as joining the picket lines, emphasizing shared interests. During the six days that the teachers were on strike, various groups of parents utilized social media to organize food, coffee, and assistance in a concerted effort.

As part of a deliberate reevaluation of the union’s function, which transitions from being an organization that negotiates and upholds contracts to one that “expresses a clear vision of public education,” the inclusion of these matters was implemented, as stated by Knapp. Seattle educators tackled concerns that parent groups in the city had been trying to address for a long time, such as school discipline and recess duration, in addition to the usual issues focused on during a teachers’ strike, like teacher assessment, salaries, and teacher-student ratios. This arose from longstanding frustrations within the community as well as purposeful and strategic actions taken by the striking teachers, according to Jonathan Knapp, president of SEA. Union leaders were not surprised by this support.

Knapp, teachers unions, suggests that the guardians of students’ and parents’ concerns should leverage their authority in contractual discussions, especially given the current intense debate surrounding the direction of the American education system.

The strike received support from parents and garnered attention from various media outlets such as The New York Times, NPR, The Huffington Post, and The National Post. The strike focused on hot-button education issues, which led to more disengaged parents and increased media coverage.

According to Michael Muto, a parent of two students attending Seattle Public Schools, who got engaged in educational advocacy due to the strike, “[The educators] were not only here for their own benefit. They genuinely stood up for the children.”

Soup for Teachers’ fellow administrators coordinated the delivery of nourishment, beverages, and picketing assistance to every educational institution. Liza Rankin, one of the leaders of the Facebook group, created a Google map of Seattle’s 97 schools, which included details about parent leaders at each school and the specific assistance required by teachers throughout the five-day strike. Parents initiated a Facebook group called Soup for Teachers, which now has over 3,000 members, with the aim of providing sustenance to the union’s negotiating team before and during the strike. Knapp’s strategy also proved successful due to the impact of social media, a tool that was non-existent three decades ago.

The Facebook page for Teachers for Soup, as stated by Rankin, illustrates one example of the lasting effects of a coordinated parent engagement strike. Rankin says, “People are realizing, ‘Oh, this person is having a drastically different experience than me, or did I have the same experience?'” Rankin also mentions that the page has busted down the walls between schools.

After the teacher strike, members of Teachers for Soup continued to be vocal in their support for efforts to stop cuts to teacher positions, with nearly 700 fewer students expected to be enrolled in high schools in the Seattle school district jumping into the debate.

Rankin says that Teachers for Soup is now working on social justice. They are addressing various challenges and collaborating with teachers from different parts of the city to help schools. Rankin is also trying to close the gap between underprivileged and economically privileged students in school.

The digital disparity is an extremely tangible concept. Individuals with expendable time and finances, predominantly of Caucasian descent, are engaged in the activism following the strike. Jonas, a member of Soup for Teachers, asserts, “Those families are not being given a voice because, by definition, they encounter obstacles in communication.” She expresses particular concern for the parents of students learning English as a second language. According to Melissa Jonas, a parent from South Seattle whose child attends Kimball Elementary, parents from underrepresented communities in the city are still not participating in discussions regarding policies. Although the utilization of social media for parental organization has facilitated communication among parents, it has not eradicated the divisions that exist within school communities.

The organizing parent, whose promises to make the biggest impact at the state level, have outgrown the efforts and funding of the school where stagnation has occurred.

Some Republican lawmakers called on Governor Jay Inslee to hold a special session to come up with a new compromise, as the court ruled in July that the state had to pay a daily fine of $100,000 for failing to adequately fund education. However, the court also ruled that the state had managed to reach a compromise in June, increasing teacher pay by 3 percent and providing a slight bump in healthcare benefits. This compromise allowed the state to redirect funds that would have gone towards noncore programs or technology arts to underfunded districts and meet its obligations to schools. However, the state is generally underfunded when it comes to basic education funding, including teacher salaries and adjustments for the cost of living. This ruling was made in the State v. McCleary case by the Washington Supreme Court in 2012.

A petition launched by Michael Muto, a parent in Seattle, has gathered over 2,000 signatures. The petition aims to push for more funding for schools and was launched after the end of the teachers’ strike. Additionally, a letter-writing campaign has been initiated to advocate for increased funding. Members of the Senate Education Committee have testified during the committee’s listening tour around the state this fall. Nearly 3,000 parents and community members in Seattle have joined the Paramount Duty Facebook page, which is an organization that advocates for providing students with a quality education in Washington. However, despite the efforts of parents and community members, the state legislature has failed to respond, and the court ruling has also not addressed the demands of the striking teachers. This failure to address the rising cost of living in Seattle and the need for higher teacher salaries reflects the frustration of parents.

Stephen Nielsen, the former chief financial officer for Seattle Public Schools and currently the assistant superintendent at Puget Sound Educational Service District, expresses his frustration, stating, “I am determined to convey to legislators that we need to take action and make them understand the urgency.”

Jonas states, “One cannot make excellent choices if they lack sufficient funds to make fundamental choices.” However, the absence of financial support from the state is a significant factor,” Jonas affirms. “I refuse to excuse SPS for their dysfunction. These actions may ultimately have the most enduring impact of the strike and serve as a unifying influence for teachers, parents, and district officials, despite their disparities.