Teachers on strike

Teachers in Kent, Washington Strike Over Classroom Size as Well as Bread and Butter Issues


Public education teachers have always been assailed as “greedy” whenever the organizations that represent them call for a strike action.  In the United States, the two largest associations of public education workers 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 levels.   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.

Given such a political climate, it has become obvious in recent years to many in the rank and file caucuses of the AFT and the NEA that our organizations will have to take the upper hand in 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 as sure as public representation has (for the time being) been co-opted in the public health “debate” and on questions of public transportation.

Arne DuncanThe emergence of Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his initiative “Race to the Top” is one such example of the power of this tendency.  Duncan’s contribution to “education reform” would have public school districts all over the country sliding around in each other’s blood in a merit pay and charter school competition for small chunks from a $4.5 billion dollar purse.  This is the sort of social Darwinist nonsense from corporate “education reform” specialists we can look to see more of  in the coming years.

So when public school instructors in Kent, Washington, made the decision to strike over classroom size a few weeks ago, it marked a qualitative step forward in the collective bargaining struggles of teachers everywhere.  Rather than accepting the line of Kent Schools Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas that reduction of class room size would be irresponsible in our age of fiscal crisis, the Kent Education Association leadership chose to defend the interests of Washington State citizens, who on numerous occasions in recent years have sponsored taxpayer initiatives that would reduce classroom size in order to improve academic achievement in the public schools.

As you might well guess, functionaries in Kent trotted out the usual arguments that the money to accommodate the needs of the students in Kent simply isn’t there.  They might have a point.  Whatever revenue that comes from the federal level in this time of economic crisis, for example, must be stingily distributed so that funds at the national level are available instead to bomb schools in the school districts of Baghdad and Gaza.  It’s a matter of priorities.  And given such priorities, public leaders at the local and regional level must severely restrict what meager resources are available through state and local funding, and of course, the “generosity” of corporate donors.

Kent teachers, however, were feeling a serious pinch from overloaded classrooms.  Teachers in Kent maintained that there is something about trying to build and maintain a coherent curriculum in a classroom with 45 pre-adolescents that simply doesn’t vie with any realities that may be confirmed through painful experience.  The Kent School District replied that the teachers’ actions were “tearing families apart” — with all the privileged aplomb of people who refuse to see see that rising unemployment and foreclosure rates don’t exactly help hold families together.

Teachers in Kent then raised the point that if money that could be used to reduce classroom size is so tight, how is it that the Kent District is 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 $1,500 daily.

Right wing commentators in the entire 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 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.  Even the generally conservative Washington Education Association and the nearby Seattle Education Association offered to bring funding and rank and file support forward if the Kent teachers remained out on strike.

Everything came to a head on the 17th day of the walkout, Monday, September 14th, when the union agreed to a tentative agreement.  The bourgeois press did its usual crowing over its use of the state courts to bully the workforce into submission, and its usual cries for “fiscal responsibility.”  The Seattle Times echoed the Kent Administration in writing: “using the district’s reserve funds on smaller classroom sizes,” as the union wanted to do, would be “irresponsible.”   Some small concessions were made, keeping classroom numbers around 30, which is still too large a number for most elementary school classrooms.  The right to smaller classroom numbers is only for those who can afford private institutions, which usually top numbers off at the more realistic rate of 15 students per teacher.  “Saving money” is responsible, it seems, but ensuring that masses of pre-adolescents receive quality one-on-one attention during the teaching day isn’t.  Forget decades of research that attests that smaller classroom sizes are cited as pivotal in ensuring quality education for all.

However, for 17 days, Kent teachers held the line against the usual 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.”  Kent is the 4th largest school district in Washington State.   And it is during such teaching moments that lessons are learned which will frame a good part of the discussions that will take place around contract negotiations in nearby Seattle, the largest district in the state.

The Seattle Education Association, in its own bargaining earlier this year, was not only stricken down on the class size question, but was, for the first time in decades, forced to accept a collective bargaining agreement of just one year’s duration. The Kent Strike raised the real question of the moment: does the public sector exist to serve the public, or does it exist only so long as the financial speculators in this country see fit to allow the public a decent quality of life? It’s a needful question, given that less then a year ago the financial speculators themselves were granted an extended lease on life through the generosity of the working class taxpayer, who today is told that the comprehensive education of her children amounts to “fiscal irresponsibility.”

Kent teachers on strikeIn short, the realities encountered by the teachers’ struggle in Kent, Washington, teach the central truth of our time: the future lies with the independent mobilization of the working class majority of the United States.  The teachers in Kent and their allies have shown the real way forward, which is a direct challenge to laws that serve only an increasingly decadent and irresponsible financial oligarchy in the Untied States. The broader  educators’ movement hasn’t found its own sense of purpose yet, but as teachers in Kent have just demonstrated, it’s only a matter of time.  Reality teaches.


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