Tacoma teachers brace for long strike
Washington is latest state to join the trend
“Teachers have the patience of saints. I think the district doesn’t understand that. We will wait this out.”
First-year Lincoln High teacher
TACOMA, Wash. – Anne Hawkins prides herself on teaching students at Jason Lee Middle School to stand up for themselves. She preaches social justice, imploring the youth in her classroom to call out inequality.
So instead of reporting to her classroom the way she has for 19 years, Hawkins walked a picket line Monday morning, chanting about better pay. About 2,200 Tacoma Public Schools teachers are striking, and most of them circled the district office Monday, joined by hundreds of parents and students who support their walkout. Their soundtrack: Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and “Revolution” by The Beatles.
“If any students asked me what I was doing, the answer would be simple,” said Hawkins, who has taught language arts here for almost two decades. “I would say, ‘I’m doing the thing we talk about and practice every day in class.’ ”
Strikes have rocked the education world this year. Teachers want higher salaries. They’re fed up with paying for school supplies out of their own pocket and working extra hours.
Last school year, teachers staged statewide strikes in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma. They also rallied in Kentucky, North Carolina and Colorado, closing some of the biggest schools. As the new school year starts, teachers aren’t stopping.
About a dozen districts in Washington missed their start dates because of teacher strikes, the state teachers’ union said. Educators in four of those were still striking Monday, although Centralia teachers, in west-central Washington, reached a tentative agreement with their district Monday night.
In Los Angeles, teachers at the nation’s second-largest school district have voted to strike if negotiators can’t reach an agreement. A walkout there could come as soon as next month.
In Tacoma, an hour’s drive south of Seattle, teachers believe the strike could keep the district’s 30,000 students out of school for all of September. “Teachers have the patience of saints,” said Megan Holyoke, who was scheduled to start her first year of teaching at Lincoln High but hasn’t made it to her classroom yet. “I think the district doesn’t understand that. We will wait this out.”
Strikes in other parts of the country have been “catalyzing” for Tacoma teachers, said Nate Bowling, a teacher at Lincoln High School. He also pointed to a renewed spirit of protest across the U.S. in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election two years ago.
People everywhere have hit their breaking point when it comes to a lack of appreciation and money for what teachers do, Bowling said. In this political moment, grabbing a sign and joining a march is not only acceptable, but also encouraged.
And this time, even parents scrambling to find child care or worrying about their children’s education are backing striking teachers.
In Tacoma, teachers are protesting what they believe is a misappropriation of money the school district received after a landmark state Supreme Court case. The Washington Supreme Court ruled in 2012 the state wasn’t spending enough to cover basic education costs. Justices ordered legislators to fix that by the start of this school year.
Many Washington schools have directed the millions they’ve received to sizable pay increases. But in Tacoma, teachers say they haven’t seen the money. Many said they could drive 10 minutes from their current school and get a $10,000 raise. Why can’t they earn that money here, in Tacoma?
The school district says it needs the $50 million influx it received from the state to cover a projected budget crunch. Officials blame lawmakers for not sending the district more money.
“It’s frustrating to us, much as it is to our teachers,” district spokesman Dan Voelpel said. “We believe they deserve double-digit raises as well, but we’re just not in the position to fund it that other school districts are.”
That’s not a good enough answer for some teachers.
“It’s important to understand this is not a raise,” said Tina Taylor, who was set to start her 22nd year teaching here last week. “These are reparations. This is money we’ve been owed since 2012.”
Teachers say the new money for education is being funneled to high-level administrators, positions many consider unnecessary. They’re particularly furious about the salary of Superintendent Carla Santorno, whose $291,000 salary is nearly $114,000 more than that of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
This strike “feels different” than in 2011, the last time educators here walked off the job, teachers told USA TODAY. Parents are upset their children aren’t in school, but many blame school administrators, not striking teachers.
When the school district posted on Facebook it would be closed Monday, it received hundreds of comments in response – many of them angry parents, siding with teachers.
“My daughter needs to be in school! She wants to be at school,” commented Leonette Hall, who says her youngest daughter is a 10th grader in the district. “You need to pay these teachers what they deserve! Your games are hurting these kids, parents and teachers.”
“I’m struggling,” chimed in Alexandria Lynne, who says she is a senior at Mount Tahoma High. “You’re messing up my whole entire life plan going on. Can you guys suck it up and just pay them the right amount already please?”
Some commenters blamed the teachers. Since teachers don’t want to work, Jessica Davidson commented, “how about all of us parents go and teach and then maybe our kids will learn something?”
District officials, spokesman Dan Voelpel said, are doing “everything we can to bring an end to it as quickly as possible and get our students back to school.” The district has asked the state to assign an independent arbitrator to the case.
Striking teachers carry picket signs as they march around the Tacoma School District Central Administration Building on Monday in Tacoma, Wash. AP