What the Teachers' Strike Taught Seattle Parents

Local parents learned to use their powers for good
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Months have passed since teachers in Seattle Public Schools walked the picket lines in the district’s first strike in 30 years.

Students missed six full days of school—the first days of the school year—as the Seattle Education Association (SEA), which represents 5,000 teachers, negotiated over issues that included testing, recess, teacher pay and length of the school day.

Changes are in the works. A 20-minute-longer school day will go into effect in Seattle in 2017; a district- and teacher-led committee will review the district’s equity work; student-teacher ratios in some special education programs will be raised; and teachers will receive a pay bump starting this year.

But fundamental shifts, the kind that are less transparent, have also been altering the Seattle education landscape. On social media and in meetings, parents have chimed in to discuss and demand changes to district and state policies more vocally than they have in the past, potentially breaking the state’s stalemate over issues like school funding.

During the strike, groups of parents used social media to coordinate food, coffee and support for the teachers’ six days on the picket line. Some even joined the picket lines, citing common interests, such as a guarantee that students would get recess.

According to union leaders, that support was not unexpected. Jonathan Knapp, president of SEA, says it stemmed from long-standing frustrations in the community as well as intentional, strategic moves on the part of the striking teachers. In addition to issues typically targeted in a teachers’ strike, such as teacher evaluation, salaries and teacher-student ratios, Seattle educators took on issues that parent groups in the city had long sought to address, such as school discipline and recess time. Knapp says that the inclusion of those issues was part of a calculated rethinking of the union’s role, from being an organization that bargains and enforces contracts to one that “articulates a coherent vision of public education.”

At a time when the direction of the American education system is hotly disputed, teachers unions, says Knapp, should use the power they have in contract negotiations to be the watchdogs for students’ and parents’ interests.

Public school unions should be “the immovable object” that district and education advocates should have to reckon with, Knapp says. To do so requires looking beyond the typical issues of teacher pay and teacher evaluation to get at issues that parents and students hold dear, as well. The strike, he says, was just the first move on that larger agenda.
 
In terms of galvanizing parents, the strike did its job. Part of its success came from the slew of attention it drew; after all, Seattle teachers had not gone on strike since the 1980s. What’s more, picketing teachers hit on hot-button issues in education. The Huffington Post, National Public Radio, The New York Times and other media covered the strike, drawing the attention of more disengaged parents. But parents specifically mentioned the teachers’ push for recess as one of the reasons they were drawn to support the strike.

“[The teachers] weren’t out here just for themselves,” says Michael Muto, a parent of two Seattle Public Schools students, who became involved with education advocacy work as a result of the strike. “They really were out here for the kids.”

Knapp’s strategy also paid off because of the effects of social media, a tool that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Parents launched a Facebook group, Soup for Teachers—membership numbers more than 3,000—in an effort to supply food to the union bargaining team in the days leading up to the strike, and then to the teachers during the strike. Over the course of the five-day strike, one of the Facebook group’s leaders, Liza Rankin, built a Google map of Seattle’s 97 schools, including information about parent leaders at each school and the kind of help teachers needed. She and Soup for Teachers’ fellow administrators coordinated the delivery of food, drinks and picketing support to every school.

The Facebook site illustrates one of the strike’s lasting effects: coordinated parent engagement. Rankin says that the map, along with the Facebook posts, helped break down historical divides between neighborhoods and parents. “The Soup for Teachers page has busted down the walls between schools,” Rankin says. “People are realizing, ‘Oh, you had the same experience I did,’ or ‘This person is having this drastically different experience than me.’”

Soup for Teachers members continued to be vocal after the strike, supporting efforts to stop teacher cuts after nearly 700 fewer students than expected enrolled in district schools, and jumping into the debate over whether Seattle high schools should start later.

Currently, Rankin is working, through Soup for Teachers, to help schools in different parts of the city collaborate on various challenges they each face—and ways to address them. Rankin is also trying to help close the gap between the way economically privileged students and underprivileged students perform in school. “It started about feeding teachers,” Rankin says. “Now, it’s about social justice.”

While the use of social media in parent organizing has helped parents communicate, it has not eliminated the barriers that divide school communities. Melissa Jonas, a South Seattle parent whose child attends Kimball Elementary, says parents in the city’s least represented communities are still not involved in policy conversations. She particularly worries about the parents of English-language learners. “Those families are not being heard from because, by definition, they have communication barriers,” says Jonas, a member of Soup for Teachers. The people involved with the poststrike activism are “mostly overwhelmingly white, people with disposable time and money. The digital divide is a very real thing.”

The parent organizing that grew out of the strike promises to make the biggest impact at the state level, where school funding efforts have stagnated.

In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary v. State of Washington case that the state is responsible for funding basic education, including teacher salaries and cost-of-living adjustments. But the state has generally underfunded its obligations to schools, leading districts to redirect dollars that would ordinarily go toward arts, technology or other noncore programs to pay for teacher salaries. In June, the state Legislature managed to get together a compromise that increased teacher pay by 3 percent and gave teachers a slight bump in health care benefits. But in July, the court ruled that it wasn’t enough, and levied a $100,000-a-day fine on the state to pay for education. In spite of the daily fine, Governor Jay Inslee declined to call a special session to come up with a new compromise, and some Republican lawmakers called for their colleagues to defy the court’s ruling.

The striking teachers’ demands for pay that reflects Seattle’s rising cost of living drew parents’ attention to the court ruling and the state Legislature’s failure to respond. The result? Yet another parent group: Washington’s Paramount Duty, which gets its name from language in the state constitution laying out Washington’s responsibility to provide students with an education. Nearly 3,000 Seattle parents and community members have joined the Washington’s Paramount Duty Facebook page. Members have testified during the Senate Education Committee’s listening tour around the state this fall and launched a letter-writing campaign to push for more school funding; the day after the strike ended, Seattle parent Michael Muto launched a Change.org petition that has gathered more than 2,000 signatures.

“The state’s not going to fund McCleary until voters get agitated enough to tell legislators, ‘You have to do this,’” says Stephen Nielsen, who formerly served as the chief financial officer for Seattle Public Schools and is now the assistant superintendent at Puget Sound Educational Service District.

Those actions could end up being the strike’s longest-lasting aftershock and a unifying force for teachers, parents and district leaders, despite their differences. “I’m not going to let SPS off the hook for their dysfunction. But the lack of state funding is a driver here,” says Jonas. “You can’t make great decisions if you don’t have enough money to make basic decisions.”