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September 3, 2013 at 12:20 PM

Seattle teachers strike averted

TEACHER STRIKES

Jennifer Kohnke/Op Art

UPDATE: Seattle teachers approved a new two-year contract Tuesday that included a 6.3 percent pay raise. Two other groups within the Seattle Education Association inked new deals as well — paraprofessionals, including classroom aides and school secretaries. But it was negotiations affecting the district’s 3,000 teachers that threatened to turn into a strike. This Times story brings you up to date.

And yes, you read correctly. A strike was a possibility. One that would have disrupted thousands of families and put the City of Seattle in the hot seat as it scrambled to set up makeshift child care options at 20 community centers. None of that will be necessary now.

Still, the question must be asked. How is it that in a year in which the state Legislature spent about $1 billion more on public schools, and a year in which Seattle offered its teachers a sizable pay raise, did we end up narrowly avoiding a strike?

The answer is that it was never about the money, but about the progression of policy measures that depending on your viewpoint are necessary improvements to accountability and academics or the slow degradation of public education.

Seattle teachers are paid well. Yes, they could stand to be paid more when compared to other educated professionals such as lawyers, but they’re not paid too shabbily now. A regional salary comparison using data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, places Seattle teachers as the third-highest paid teachers in the Puget Sound region. Only Everett and Mukilteo school districts pay their teachers more. When the Seattle Education Association laments the state’s paltry salaries for teachers, what’s ignored is how much local districts kick in to boost those salaries.  In Seattle, the $50,812 paid by the state to the average teacher becomes $69,878 with the help of local district funds. By the way, Seattle salaries cover a 7.5-hour workday despite the official workday of elementary-school teachers being  30 minutes shorter than that of middle- and high-school teachers, and of elementary teachers around the region. But when the district sought to add the half-hour it is already paying for, the union balked.

The union also wanted to weaken the much-heralded evaluation system it worked with the district to develop. I find this puzzling because teachers long complained about the limitations of the old thumbs-up/thumbs down evaluation system. Since the new one was approved in the 2010 teachers contract, the union and the district have sought to take credit for the exiting of nearly 100 poor-performing teachers.

The union that agreed with the district to use student test scores as part of measuring teacher performance, now wants the practice stopped. Go figure. Union leaders say they are merely hitting the pause button while waiting for new assessments. Does anyone really believe that once test scores are thrown out of the teacher evaluation mix, that they will be reinserted at some later date? If so, I have some property for sale. The better course is to refine the evaluation system so that it relies on multiple measures, not just test scores, as well as addresses the challenges of  of measuring teachers teaching non-tested courses, such as music.

What’s going on? The district that started out being a leader is on the cusp of becoming a laggard.

Tomorrow, once the kids are back in school it is worth asking if Seattle was merely a pawn in a high-stakes game of chess where the intent was to push the district back a few policy steps to strengthen the bargaining hand of the state teachers union. If Seattle could be convinced/forced to scrap using test scores in teacher evaluations, it would be difficult for administrators in districts from Tacoma to Toppenish to argue otherwise.

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