by michael hureaux perez
Teachers in a small school district in the Puget Sound region of Washington went on strike against the corporate “reform” juggernaut – and survived the experience. “For 17 days, Kent teachers held the line against the usual Dickensian shopkeeper horse manure that dominates the public education debate in the United States.” The community stood with them.
Eshu’s blues: Teachers Defend Their Communities and Themselves
by michael hureaux perez
“If education theory comes to be dominated by the neo-Taylorist nostrums of the ‘private sector,’ what remains of public power within the education arena will be kicked to the side.”
In Kent, Washington, an increasingly strapped suburban district just south of Seattle, a group of public school teachers found the courage to defy school district administration, court injunctions, and the corporate media. Educators who are members of the Kent Education Association staged a 17-day walkout over the issue of classroom size and excessive demands on actual classroom time that have long been features of the corporate-driven education “reform” process that was so beloved by the Bush junta, and which is now carried forward by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his pal the President.
Beyond the bread and butter issues of collective bargaining, the Kent Teachers voted to strike over classroom size and consultant impositions upon the quality of instruction in their working day. The educators organized parents in support of their cause, which for a brief time not only took the issue of education “reform” away from the corporate experts, but managed to shine a light on the excessive payroll awarded to school district officials in many parts of western Washington. The strike became a quality of life question for all parties concerned.
The state’s largest public sector local is the Seattle Education Association, which, earlier this year found itself forced to accept a one year contract by Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, a union-busting corporate mole who was imported from the right-to-work state of South Carolina two years ago by the white uptown liberals who dominate the education reform discussion in the so-called “Emerald City.” Kent, which has a much smaller membership base, or the 4th largest in the state, held the line for smaller classroom sizes and fewer hours spent in faculty meetings. In all too many schools nowadays, faculty meetings constitute little more than administrative harangues of the workforce and more frequent exhortations to do much more with much less.
“The strike became a quality of life question for all parties concerned.”
Kent teachers decided they’d had enough of the company model, and the repercussions of their effort are bound to be felt when Seattle teachers have to return to the bargain table this winter. After all, the SEA was not able to win any concessions on classroom size from the district, but Kent educators managed to make the Kent district officials bend. More teachers in Washington State, as the budget belt tightens, are going to want to know why their union leadership can’t act in militant defense not only of the contract, but of quality public education. But there is a long, hard road yet to travel in terms of quality defense of curricula implementation among the ranks. There are formidable obstacles in the way, and some pretty solid reasons why this is such an uphill battle just about anywhere an education struggle is waged.
Any labor action in the public sector, as is well known, is likely to be viewed as treacherous by sections of the public, and this is particularly true of teacher strikes. Public education instructors have always been assailed as “greedy” whenever the organizations that represent them have been authorized by the membership to call for a strike action. In the United States, the two largest associations of public education professionals are the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). The language employed by ruling class officials in countering militant actions taken by the education workforce within either organization has often reached absurd terms. For example, many will remember when Bush Administration Secretary of Education Rod Paige implied that teacher unions were akin to “terrorist organizations” in the months immediately following the September 11th attacks.
“Kent held the line for smaller classroom sizes and fewer hours spent in faculty meetings.”
Given such a political climate, then, it has become obvious in recent years to many in the rankandfile caucuses of the AFT and the NEA that our organizations will have to take the upper handin the so-called “education reform” discussion, which is currently led by privatization forces sponsored by the corporate sector all over this country. The stakes in the struggle are very high, for if education theory comes to be dominated by the neo-Taylorist nostrums of the “private sector,” what remains of public power within the education arena will be kicked to the side.
The usual ruling class canards were trotted out when the Kent teachers began their walkout. Kent Schools Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas argued that reduction of classroom size would be irresponsible in our age of fiscal crisis. The Kent Education Association leadership responded that they were seeking to defend the interests of Washington state citizens, who on numerous occasions in recent years have voted in taxpayer initiatives that would reduce classroom size for the sake of academic achievement in the public schools. Kent, like many suburban districts, has begun to know the true impact of the economy on the lives of huge sections of its student population, which is roughly 36 percent people of color, many of whom are English language learners, working class, and of immigrant status.
In response, functionaries in Kent trotted out the company line that the money to accommodate the needs of the students in Kent simply wasn’t there. And to a certain extent, Vargas and his people had a point. The Washington State legislature has been giving corporate patrons like Boeing, Microsoft and Weyerhauser a largely tax free ride for a long time at the state and regional level, and whatever revenue that could come from the federal level at this time of economic crisis must be foregone so that monies are available to bomb schools and burn children with white phosphorous weapons in the school districts of Baghdad and Gaza. It’s a matter of priorities.
“Our organizations will have to take the upper hand in the so-called 'education reform' discussion.”
Teachers in Kent maintained that the construction of coherent curriculum in a classroom with 45 pre-adolescents simply doesn’t work. The Kent School District replied that the actions of the teachers were “tearing families apart.” Many of the striking teachers in Kent then raised the point that massive unemployment, housing dislocation, and rollbacks in public services don’t exactly hold families together. Further, if money that could be used to reduce classroom size was impossible to find, how was it that the Kent District was able to pay its Superintendent Vargas a little less than a quarter of a million dollars a year ($240,000) at a time when the Washington State Governor only makes $167,000 annually? In fact, asked Kent teachers, why is it that the Kent Superintendent makes more a year than the formal salary of the Vice President of the United States, who, according to public accounts, is compensated with $227,000 every twelve months?
Parents of students in Kent noted this absurdity, and alongside some rank and file activists, created a solidarity organization that supported the striking teachers on both the question of classroom size, and the amount of time teachers in Kent are being forced to spend in staff meetings. Several parents began to mount a recall effort directed against members of the Kent School Board who were attempting to break the strike. In response, the Kent District fell back on the usual union breaking apparatus, using the courts to threaten Kent Teachers with fines of $200 a day for every day they remained on the picket line and the Kent Education Association itself a fine of $1500 daily.
Right wing commentators in the Puget Sound area media argued that teachers on strike were straining families that had to strain to pay for daycare facilities since their children weren’t in school. Of course, nowhere did such aggrieved “supporters” of working families volunteer any of their own money, time or personal space to accommodate such families, who, by the way, continued to support the teachers even as the educators spoke openly of defying any state court injunction that might come down. The emotions around the strike issues reached such pitch that even the generally conservative Washington Education Association and Seattle Education Association offered to bring funding and rank and file support forward if the Kent teachers remained out in defiance of the court injunction. The central question of the strike was too large to be ignored by the two larger organizations, which like to festoon their literature with slogans like “Putting kids first” and “Take the lead.” Kent took the lead, and the WEA and the SEA had to follow.
“Many of the striking teachers in Kent raised the point that massive unemployment, housing dislocation, and rollbacks in public services don’t exactly hold families together.”
Everything came to a head on the 17th day of the walkout, Monday, September 14th, when the union members agreed to go back to work. Some small concessions were made to keeping classroom numbers around 30, which is still too large a number for most elementary school classrooms. Pay adjustments were offered to teachers who may be required to work with larger class sizes for a longer period, and that payoff could well co-opt a teacher labor activist for a short time. It’s a tactic that has certainly confused most of the education workforce in Seattle. But the point raised by militant Kent educators was made, it was heard by parents in the community who proved to be very effective allies, and it may well be that the genie is out of the bottle. Time will tell.
For 17 days, Kent teachers held the line against the usual Dickensian shopkeeper horse manure that dominates the public education debate in the United States. For 17 days, members of the community in Kent came out in support of a striking section of public sector workers and declared publicly that if Washington State law actually forbids teachers the right to strike, then Washington State law is encumbered with the mentality of peonage. For 17 days, more conservative elements of the education labor movement encountered, in the strike actions of Kent, what educators like to call a “teaching moment.”
“The central question of the strike was too large to be ignored.”
The Kent Strike raised the toughest question of the moment: does the public sector exist to serve the public, or does it exist only so long as the imperial banksters see fit to allow the public a decent quality of life? It’s a needful question, one that is bound to resonate in many quarters of the labor movement overall. After all, the banksters themselves less then a year ago were granted an extended lease on life through the largesse of the working class taxpayer, who today is told that the comprehensive education of her children amounts to “fiscal irresponsibility.”
The teachers in Kent Washington and their allies have shown the real way forward, which is a direct challenge to law that serves only the increasingly wasteful and violent financial oligarchy of the Untied States. The wider educator’s section of the labor movement hasn’t found its own sense of purpose yet, but as teachers in Kent have just demonstrated, it may well be only a matter of time. Reality teaches.
BAR columnist michael hureaux perez is a writer, musician and teacher who lives in southwest Seattle, Washington. He is a longtime contributor to small and alternative presses around the country and performs his work frequently. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.