Running for respect in Seattle

April 3, 2014

Alexia Garcia and Marilena Marchetti report from Seattle on a challenge from rank-and-file activists in upcoming elections in the Seattle Education Association.

"WE HAVE a bold vision for educating Seattle's children." So said Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Seattle's Garfield High School, as he and the Respect slate kicked off their campaign for elections in the 5,000-strong Seattle Education Association (SEA). Voting begins on April 27 and takes place over a period of 11 days.

The campaign launch brought out fellow SEA members, community leaders and parents who want a change in Seattle public schools. The mood was electric. Hagopian, who is running for president, went on to say:

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the announcement by my colleagues at Garfield that they would defend students by refusing to administer the deeply flawed MAP test. That movement galvanized parents, students and education advocates across the city and around the nation. Today, educators throughout Seattle--many of whom were inspired by our stand for authentic assessment--are organizing to bring this movement for an equitable, high-quality education into our union election.

Jesse Hagopian rallying with fellow Seattle educators
Jesse Hagopian rallying with fellow Seattle educators (Social Equality Educators)

Marian Wagner, a fifth-grade teacher at Salmon Bay K-8, shared why she was running as the Respect candidate for SEA vice president:

It was an extremely difficult decision to run for vice president of the SEA because I don't want to leave the classroom. I love the challenge of improving our world through teaching the next generation, but the education of our youth is not being supported systematically. I can't ignore the thunderous cry of phenomenal educators who are not being heard. I am agreeing to step up and run on their behalf.

James Bible, former head of the Seattle/King County NAACP, made a statement of support that rallied the crowd:

We have to take stands such as this. We have to embrace educators who are prepared to embrace our children. And I'm not just talking about the child in the front row that raises his hand every time he goes to answer, who has two parents who both make over $100,000 a year. I'm talking about the child in the back row, back corner who may have had a rough experience that morning, and it's amazing that he or she made it to school on that day...

We need to move towards a place where we achieve a different sort of balance, where our resources are actually allocated in such a way where those higher up don't have their foot on the neck of those that are providing direct services.

THE RESPECT slate is comprised of teachers from Social Equality Educators (SEE), a rank-and-file caucus within the SEA, and its allies.

SEE was born among educators who were part of a struggle to prevent school closures in 2008, which connected them with fellow teachers, parents and community members. They were able to prevent the closure of six buildings after Seattle Public Schools sought to shutter 16.

Later, SEE mobilized to put pressure on public officials to fully fund public education at state budget hearings. SEE also partnered with Occupy Seattle to coordinate a direct action against banking giant Chase, with the aim of exposing the inherent inequity in a system that allows Chase to exploit tax loopholes and reap billions in profits, while public schools face budget cuts.

SEE is best known, however, for the MAP test boycott in January 2013. Teachers at Garfield voted unanimously to boycott the district-mandated MAP test on account of it being out of sync with the academic curriculum, a disruption to students' learning, and a drain on limited resources.

The boycott was enthusiastically supported by the student government and the Parent, Teacher and Student Association. It spread to other schools in Seattle, including Orca K-8, Chief Sealth International High School, Ballard High School, Center School, and Thornton Creek Elementary. Solidarity with the boycott spread from Seattle around the country, and then around the world. As important as the solidarity for Seattle teachers was the role the boycott played in galvanizing and advancing the growing opposition to standardized testing around the U.S.

At first, Seattle school officials threatened to suspend boycotting teachers without pay for 10 days. But the scale of support for the boycott forced them to climb down--and ulitmately, the school district dropped its requirement to use the MAP at the high school level.

Now, some of the same teachers who participated in the MAP boycott are participating in the Respect challenge. Marian Wagner explained the urgency of the campaign:

As educators, we are annually faced with budget cuts, increased class sizes and more top-down mandates surrounding curriculum and standardized testing. When we take a stand against evaluation based on standardized test scores, we're told we "fear accountability." When we ask for fair compensation, we're told we're selfish. Enough is enough! It's time we as educators stand up and demand RESPECT.

The Respect campaign platform stands for a fair contract for teachers, a member-driven union, fully funded schools for all students, and a system that listens to students, parents and educators over corporations when making decisions regarding our schools.

At the wider level, Hagopian sees the Respect campaign as a challenge to federally mandated privatization and overemphasis on standardized testing under No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top:

I was compelled to run for union office by the desperate need to defend public education from the corporate education reform onslaught--and help transform it into a force for social justice. The SEE Respect slate of candidates believes we need courageous union leaders who will listen to the members, stand up for their rights in the workplace, and work hard to achieve the members' vision for public education.

THE CURRENT Seattle Education Association leadership lacks clarity about the scale of the attacks coming down on teachers and public education. As a consequence, SEA ratified a contract last spring with significant weaknesses.

SEA president Jonathan Knapp began that contract struggle promising to focus on compromise and relationship-building. That's in keeping with his message since his inauguration in 2012, when the Seattle Times featured a story headlined: "Seattle teachers union adopts softer strategy.

Knapp was quoted as saying, "Simply saying 'no' is no longer an option. The climate has changed, and we have to be advocates for public education in a way that 20 years ago we didn't, and the way that we do that is building relationships, not by confronting people and saying it's our way or the highway."

The Times went on to report that the union's "softening has been seen most in the new teacher-evaluation system and recent School Board elections. The evaluation system was Knapp's idea: While the district wanted student test scores included as a factor in teacher-evaluation ratings and the union did not, he proposed that the scores not be directly included in the ratings but instead be used to trigger closer scrutiny and additional evaluations--a compromise that's since been hailed as innovative."

Knapp's "softening" and "innovation" stopped well short of drawing the line against tying teachers' evaluations to test scores--and left the union ill-prepared to negotiate a strong contract.

The agreement arrived at in early September, which was ratified by a narrow 60 percent majority, now contains language that adds an additional measure of student growth to teacher evaluation; lengthens the elementary school workday without an increase in pay or more student access to PE, music and art; lacks true caseload limits for educational staff associates (ESAs); and offers a meager 2 percent pay increase.

According to Dan Troccoli, a SEA member and Respect candidate for treasurer: "While the contract was eventually approved, many comments during the debate and the close vote clearly revealed that the members of SEA were not at all satisfied with the two-year contract."

There are other frustrations with the SEA leadership. At Respect campaign events, union members shared stories about experiencing a lack of official support and having to fend for oneself against a bullying administrator or unfair labor practice. In addition to the flawed evaluation system, educators say they have complaints about the lack of protections surrounding curriculum, a disregard for the voices of the membership and a disrespect from the current SEA leadership.

THIS DISCONTENT came to the surface again last month when Seattle Public Schools carried through the process for the 2014-15 operating budget.

Budgets at Seattle schools are approved annually through a procedure that requires individual schools to determine which staff to cut, and then take a vote to ratify the decision. Unlike years past, the SEA leadership called on members to unite against the cuts and vote "no" on proposals that would sacrifice their colleagues.

Union members were elated to hear that the SEA leadership was, unlike past years, taking a stand. High school teacher Ian Golash,

In an article for Educators' Vision, high school teacher Ian Golash wrote that resistance to cuts that had "become a regular part of the ecosystem" was sorely needed:

Buildings are regularly asked to do more with less. Buildings are regularly asked whether they would like a social worker to help students get into a place where they can learn or a truancy specialist to work with students and their families to get them to school in the first place. They are regularly asked to decide if they would like to be able to maintain an art elective or a classroom skills support program. These are "Sophie's choices" that no school building should be asked to make.

Following the course set out by the SEA leadership, members in buildings across the city voted "no," despite fears of retaliation and even worse cuts if the unprecedented no votes provoked an administrative veto. Mary Smith, an administrative secretary an Ingraham High School, created a petition and a compelling video that reached hundreds of people and helped bring out SEA members to demonstrate against budget cuts at a meeting of the school board.

In mid-March, Superintendent José Banda announced that the cuts had been avoided for the coming year, chiefly because of additional funding from the state. SEA members breathed a sigh of relief--but not long after, it became clear that Banda and the union leadership had obscured the details of how the budget cuts were temporarily staved off. The funding mechanisms for certain staff positions were switched from a baseline allocation to a discretionary allocation. This change threatens the security of certain positions and doesn't guarantee they will remain in the coming fall.

There's no doubt that union action, as SEE member Roberta Lindeman said, "forced the hand of the district to make concessions" on the budget cuts. But Knapp called off a planned rally of teachers and their supporters at the monthly school board meeting on the grounds that a victory had been secured. As Lindeman said:

[N]ow the question is: Could we have won those clerical positions back in the weighted staffing standard and an even fairer share of the additional funding from the state had we kept up the pressure on the district? Our union leadership, SEA, called off the rally for the school board meeting on Wednesday of that week. SEE's position is we pulled back too soon and demobilized the energy and momentum we still need to win this issue.

THE RESPECT slate and the SEE caucus are putting forward a different vision about how to organize against budget cuts, increasing class sizes and standardized testing abuse. They look to the same vision of social justice unionism that helped the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) win contract battles, even in the face of the corporate school onslaught.

While the CTU and PAT differ in many ways, they both achieved success because of a social justice approach and a stress on building democratic, member-driven unions. Both produced documents that put forward a vision for the schools that students deserve--and both laid stress on working alongside grassroots parent and community organizations in the struggle for education justice, and in challenging the lies propagated by the corporate media.

SEE's history of working hand together with parents and community activists organizing to protect public education is evident from the endorsements the Respect slate has earned. Sue Peters, a founding member of Parents Across America and current member of the Seattle School Board, explained why she supports Jesse Hagopian's candidacy for president:

I have known Jesse Hagopian since 2008 when I joined his organization, ESP Vision, with many other Seattle parents, teachers and community leaders, to fight damaging and ill-advised school closures. Since that time, I have watched Jesse consistently speak up for social justice, and have been impressed by his unwavering support of public education…

From his role in the nationally reverberating MAP test boycott, to his recent participation as a panelist at the inaugural conference of Dr. Diane Ravitch's Network for Public Education, to his support for a living wage, Jesse has been willing to lead the local and national debate on important issues that affect students, educators and working people, especially those who need a strong advocate the most.

Peters knows firsthand the lengths that corporate education deformers will go to shut down voices for education justice. In her 2013 campaign for the school board, her opponent, Suzanne Dale Estey, spent $240,000, the most ever spent on a local school board election. Estey's backers included the Gates Foundation, Stand For Children and corporate interests that know little about what goes on in the classroom every day.

The architects of the corporate education deform agenda want us to believe that increased class sizes, frequent administration of standardized tests and annual competition for needed funding are good for our children. We know otherwise. Solidarity is the only thing standing in the way of the education deformers' plans for complete privatization, commodification and de-professionalization of public schools in the near future.

In Seattle, the next step in that struggle to save our schools lies with the Respect slate's campaign. Win or lose, come election time, the goal remains the same: To make the SEA into a strong force for positive change, social justice and respect.

Elizabeth Fawthrop, Taite Pryor and Jorge Torres contributed to this article.

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