May 28, 2001
Picketing teachers mention the 's' word
by Jeanette Knutson
Northshore Education Association (NSEA) members, picket signs in hand, pounded the pavement last Wednesday evening from 4 to 6 p.m. These educators from the Northshore School District chose not to stage a one-day strike, as did teachers in Seattle, Maple Valley, Issaquah, Duvall, Carnation, Enumclaw, Stanwood and Edmonds. Rather, they chose to participate in a local picket that took place outside of school hours.
It's not that their level of frustration with state legislators' breech in faith to "do the will of the people" is not high. On the contrary, over and over picketers mentioned last November's election where voters overwhelmingly supported two educational initiatives, I-728 (basically supplying new dollars to reduce class sizes) and I-732 (calling for cost-of-living raises). And over and over demonstrators mentioned appreciation for voters' support of education.
But they also expressed disappointment that politicians aren't keeping their commitment to meet those voter-approved mandates. And they want citizens to tell their legislators to fund schools now ‹ to fully fund cost-of-living increases for educators, to not cut existing education funding and to give all students the help they need to meet higher academic standards.
"They're taking away programs they've previously funded in order to fund the voter-approved initiatives," said Lynn Emerson, Woodinville resident and special education teacher at Crystal Springs Elementary who has been teaching since 1978 and is NSEA vice president and on the Washington Education Association (WEA) Board of Directors. Emerson stood with about a dozen other picketers on the corner of 175th and 131st Avenue Northeast. "They're moving the quarter from one pocket to another," she said. "And that's not what the public wanted when they passed these initiatives."
"[The voters] voted for [these initiatives] and we appreciate it, but the Legislature's not getting it," said Mavis Roe, Woodinville parent and eighth grade aide at Timbercrest Junior High. "We want the Legislature to do its job. I think the teachers are doing their jobs."
April Schatz held a sign that said "PTA supports our schools." Schatz, a PTA board member, said "We figure we've all voted for it, now all we want is for it to happen."
Rich Wood, WEA spokesperson, couldn't agree more.
"After I-695 [the license tab initiative] passed, it was found unconstitutional; but Gov. Lock and the Legislature rushed in and said, 'The voters have spoken,' and they hurried to enact it. Why isn't the Legislature going to abide by I-728 and I-732? The language in these initiatives is clear and straightforward. They are the law now. They passed. It is a willful political decision of the Legislature to ignore the law. Legislators can't pick and choose which initiatives they're going to enforce," said Wood.
"I don't want to see public education fall to the wayside," said Schatz. "It shouldn't be necessary for the public to put thousands of dollars into private education for their children. We need to continue to enrich the system we have," she said.
"Our pay," said NSEA vice president Emerson, "is the lowest on the West Coast, including Alaska and Hawaii. Even teachers in Georgia get paid better. Our pay is generally below average nationwide. In addition, there are only two states that have higher student-teacher ratios than we do."
"It will take" says WEA spokesperson Wood, "14,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes to the national average. The Legislature is not acknowledging this; they're not dealing with it," he said.
The Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) is another topic that has some teachers concerned.
Said Emerson, "WASL has not been proved to be developmentally appropriate or reliable. They change the test every year. What does that measure? And the sub tests, in math you have to be able to read to do the story problems and to write to explain your answers. In the reading test, you have to be able to write to [exhibit] your understanding of what you've read. The tests are so integrated, it's hard to tell what they test. [In addition,] there [can be as much as] a 25 percent turnover in students in one year. Is it fair to hold teachers accountable for kids who just moved to the district and who have to take the WASL tests?"
NSEA President Aaron Feik said, "WASL puts pressure on the system: on the kids and on the teachers."
"You know, said Feik, "we're being asked to teach more and more kinds of students, from the profoundly handicapped (both mentally and physically) to the extremely gifted. We're supposed to challenge them all. It takes very special people to do this job.
"But I have to say, I was impressed with the turnout [for the NSEA planned picket last Wednesday]. These people are very busy people and they made that extra effort that is sometimes uncomfortable to do. When you think about it, who wants to stand on a corner with a picket sign? But the turnout showed what type of people they are: caring, concerned people," he said.
Feik thought the Kenmore site at 68th and Bothell Way had the most picketers. Sixty-plus was his estimation.
"It was getting positively crowded," he said.
Canyon Park at 228th had another good-sized group, according to Feik. "The group stretched 60 to 70 feet from the two corners.
"School Board President Jean Fowler was out and so were other members of the school board. They brought along juice and cups and were helping out. And Northshore Superintendent Karen Forys was there too, along with parents [PTA members] and kids. There was a cross section of teachers representing the elementary, junior and senior highs. It was a real community effort."
Nearly 50 picketers, including representatives from local PTAs, children in tow, flanked all four sides of the Woodinville-Duvall Road/Avondale intersection.
Said Peggy Sherman, fourth grade teacher at Bear Creek Elementary, "For many, take-home pay is not the issue. It's programs for the kids; what are we able to do for the kids? I think most of us came into the profession knowing we wouldn't become wealthy."
"If teaching represents a second income, you're OK; but if you're the primary bread winner, it can be kind of tough," said Sandi Strain, East Ridge Elementary kindergarten teacher.
Tracy DeMeo, an educator at Bear Creek Elementary who teaches a third grade-fourth grade combination, carried a sign that read, "Are we living in the 50s? Single women should be able to support themselves." For her, it's a respect issue. "As a single woman, I would love to be able to live on my own and support myself."
But as a young teacher, her pay doesn't allow it, not in this district anyway.
"On May 10th through 12th," said NSEA VP Emerson, "a representative assembly met in Spokane [as part of the WEA's annual convention] and a new business item was passed calling for assessment [of] and planning for a statewide strike in 2002. We'd like to mirror the strike in Hawaii, which ended recently," she said.
Rich Wood, WEA spokesman, concurred that the WEA Crisis Action Team was, indeed, considering the union's options.
"It [the crisis action team] will meet again on June 7," said Wood, "to look at what our goals are and what the Legislature can do to fully fund statewide education. It [the crisis action team] needs to look at the process to determine if the time is right [for a strike]. The issue is long-term; it goes beyond this legislative session."
NSEA President Feik agreed that the crisis action team would be looking at the Hawaii strike, where teachers, he said, settled for a 16 percent pay increase.
"The crisis isn't coming, it's here," Feik said. "Do we want teaching to become a Peace Corps-type job where you come in for a few years and leave?
"Listen, we build minds. Our job is the education business. The greatest natural resource we have is people. It's not the fish, it's not the water, it's not the land. It's the people on the land, and we as teachers need to develop our children's minds. This state, this country, needs to become aware of this and they need to fund education fully.