Seattle teachers deserve more

September 12, 2013

Rebecca Anderson looks at the fine print of a new contract for Seattle teachers.

ON SEPTEMBER 3, the night before the first day of school, members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) approved a new two-year contract by a narrow vote of 60 percent to 40 percent.

The vote was particularly controversial because the contract failed to resolve issues that had been key sticking points with the district over several months of negotiations. A rank-and-file group of teachers that has helped to organize and defend a boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, Social Equality Educators (SEE), advocated for a "no" vote at the meeting.

There are several concessions in the new contract that sparked intense anger among many teachers.

Up until the tentative agreement was reached, SEA leadership insisted that it would only agree to a lengthened elementary school day if it included restored physical education, art and music classes (a measure that is extremely popular among parents and community members). Instead, the new contract includes the district's original proposal to lengthen the school day without any additional resources, nor pay for elementary teachers.

A union picket sign amended after ratification of the contract
A union picket sign amended after ratification of the contract (SW)

Teachers have also been demanding caseload limits for educational staff associates such as psychologists and nurses. The new contract merely calls for a new process to work toward limits, rather than instituting actual limits. The contract also includes a 2 percent raise for the first year and a 2.5 percent raise for the second year, a pittance for teachers who haven't received a cost-of-living increase in five years.

Finally, and perhaps most concerning for many teachers, is the new evaluation system that the contract puts into place. In addition to new state-mandated evaluations that are connected to test scores, the contract adds an additional evaluation process based on standardized test scores for teachers in tested grade levels and subjects.

Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School and member of SEE, spoke at the contract vote and said:

This contract has the exact same four sticking points that we walked away from last week [in a nearly unanimous vote against the district's proposal]. We would be the only district in the entire state that would have to jump through two hoops. Why, when we are the city that revolted against standardized testing, where parents voted unanimously to support the MAP boycott at Garfield High School, would we accept standardized testing into our contract? That is ludicrous.

MANY TEACHERS who voted for this contract likely did so because they assumed the district--and the corporate education deform funders behind them--had the upper hand in these negotiations. After all, voters in Washington state approved a bill last year that would allow charter schools to open across the state. The state legislature also passed a bill last year tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores. And, of course, these policies are universally supported by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Teachers, however, had a number of factors working in their favor. Besides the clearly widespread anger about this latest round of contract negotiations, Seattle teachers have been at the center of one of the most significant recent challenges to standardized testing, the boycott of the MAP test.

Beginning in January 2013, teachers and staff at seven schools in Seattle initiated a boycott of the highly flawed standardized test. Eleven additional schools in Seattle wrote statements in solidarity with the boycott, along with hundreds of schools, organizations and individuals worldwide.

The boycott was successful. Superintendent Jose Banda announced at the end of the school year that the MAP test would become optional at the high school level. This successful struggle, along with a growing national movement against standardized testing, helped to give confidence to teachers across Seattle that they could fight and win.

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) is also facing pressure on a number of other issues. The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has given SPS an 18-month deadline to resolve longstanding issues with its implementation of special education services, including failing to keep an accurate count of special-education students, failing to ensure that all students who qualify for special-education services receive them, and not following the academic plans all such students must have.

The Department of Education is also investigating SPS amid allegations that Black students are being disciplined more harshly than white students for the same behavior. This summer, parents, students, staff and community members rallied to defend teacher Jon Greenberg, who was transferred to another school and told to stop teaching the anti-racist curriculum he had been teaching for years, due to one parent complaint.

In addition, most recently, a struggle has emerged to defend Africatown in the Horace Mann school building. Horace Mann is a Seattle school building that was left vacant in 2008 and is now being occupied by Black students and community activists providing culturally relevant curriculum in the face of threats of eviction by the school district.

Given the many pressures on Seattle Public Schools, there was quite a bit of evidence that a serious challenge to the district's agenda could have been successful. The SEA cannot afford to shy away from this challenge in the coming years. It needs to launch a committed struggle around teachers' demands.

As Paulette Thompson from SEE put it:

Our working conditions are students' learning conditions. People are starting to understand that what goes into a contract has to be paid attention to. You don't just vote "yes" or "no" without examining what is in that contract. The 60-40 vote at the general membership meeting really shows this deliberation. We have to get away from the "I don't want a strike so I have to vote 'yes' mentality."

Last year's MAP boycott was proof that a principled stand and widespread solidarity can win, even when pitted against massive corporate interests. Seattle's teachers can win during the next contract negotiation, but it will require intensive organizing among the membership and a long-term strategy to build solidarity with parents and community members around demands that will benefit students and staff alike.

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