Northwest NEWS

April 9, 2001

Features

Will voter-approved mandates go unmet?

by Jeanette Knutson
   Staff Writer
   The story here is that there is no story. There is no teacher strike. Only 43 percent of polled Washington Education Association (WEA) members returned the surveys that queried teachers about staging a walkout. Of those, 73 percent statewide and 66 percent from the Northshore School District felt most comfortable selecting a protest method furthest removed from a strike - participation in locally organized activities.
   Furthermore, if the state budget is the bone of contention for teachers, it doesn't even exist yet. There is only one-half of a proposed budget. Only the state Senate has completed its budget proposal. The House has yet to submit its proposal and then the two bodies have to agree upon a final product.
   Besides, surely Gov. Gary Locke will weigh in on the side of the teachers at the end of the process (wink, wink). He was, after all, endorsed by the 70,000-member union.
   But who knows? Maybe the WEA donned war paint a little early in the budget process. Maybe they squandered a little political capital shouting strike before they needed to. It's hard to say.
   Nevertheless, state educators do have issues to air.
   Feeling honored that Washington voters whole-heartedly supported two educational initiatives last fall, I-728 (basically supplying new dollars to reduce class sizes) and I-732 (calling for cost-of-living raises), teachers now feel betrayed when they learn state senators want to cut existing education programs by some $72 million.
   "They're cutting education to pay for education," said Rich Wood, WEA spokesperson.
   Such cuts, say teachers, will draw dollars away from the class-size-reduction attempt, in essence negating the effect of I-728. State senators did acquiesce in the cost-of-living raises, but raises won't be coming to all teachers. School districts will have to find funds on their own for some 25,000 teachers to whom the governor and Senate don't feel obligated employees paid through federal funds (special education teachers) or local levies (teachers already hired by some districts to reduce class sizes).
   Despite budget-makers' shell game, teachers remain gratified by the public's overwhelming support for the two education initiatives. And they're loathe to march out of their classrooms in strike, said Aaron Feik, president of the Northshore Education Association.
   But mix increasing class sizes together with mediocre salaries, a high cost of living, higher academic standards and new accountability laws, said Feik, "and you've got a recipe for disaster."
   And so it seems. If class sizes don't decrease, teachers' work loads virtually increase. As lawmakers demand higher student achievement, it would make sense to lower class sizes, just to afford students the extra help they might need.
   If lawmakers decide not to fully fund increased health care costs (the Senate proposal fails to fund $44 million in higher health insurance costs for school employees), educators and/or school districts will have to make up the difference from their own pockets/coffers, resulting, despite a cost-of-living raise, in a net pay decrease for some.
   "In the Northshore School District one-third of the teachers have less than five years' experience. Another third are set to retire in the next three to five years. There's no one in the pipeline to take these jobs," said Feik.
   On top of that, "California, Oregon, Nevada and Alaska are luring our teachers away," he said. "Some districts are offering $10,000 more starting pay plus a $5,000 signing bonus and a lap top computer.
   "If a premier district in the state is starting to lose key people, we have to pay attention. The strength of our system is its teachers, and if we don't start valuing them, we're not going to have any to value."
   Maybe we do have a story here. Maybe the story is if you want to teach in Washington, you'd better squeak when you walk.