Opinion: Union deserves detention for threatening a teacher strike in Kent

Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center shares why more school closures following the learning loss associated with the COVID-inspired school shutdowns are unacceptable

Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center shares why more school closures following the learning loss associated with the COVID-inspired school shutdowns are unacceptable

Elizabeth Hovde
Washington Policy Center

It’s back-to-school season in Washington state. Cue a teachers’ union threatening to strike, willing to take taxpayers hostage as they make compensation and other workplace demands, despite the fact that teacher strikes are illegal in Washington state.

Elizabeth Hovde
Elizabeth Hovde

It’s happening in Kent where school is supposed to start on Aug. 25. It might not. On Monday, members of the Kent Education Association (KEA) authorized a strike amid negotiations over a new contract with the Kent School District. Families, many of whom are taxpayers paying the wages for teachers to show up to their jobs, were given notice that the first day of school might be delayed. They should know today if students will be missing out. 

Whether it’s just a threat or the strike happens, teachers will be hurt by this move. Many Washington families left our public schools during COVID-19 times. Enrollment has dropped by more than 41,000 students since 2019, according to the Office of Financial Management. Many more families and taxpayers are dissatisfied with public schools’ poor performance, visible in the learning loss children have experienced. Public schools and teachers don’t need another reason for Washingtonians to think the state’s public school system can’t and won’t work for the state’s children. 

School districts give families a yearly calendar that parents and students arrange their work and personal lives around — and that they should be able to count on. Teachers’ unions, however, have frequently broken the law, ignoring this school calendar that communities and families build their lives and livelihoods around.  

A 2006 opinion from the state Office of the Attorney General says, “In Washington, state and local public employees do not have a legally protected right to strike. No such right existed at common law, and none has been granted by statute.” It adds that “statutes presently do not impose penalties on public employees for engaging in a strike.”

The lack of penalties might be why even though public teacher strikes are illegal in Washington state, they still happen. Teachers who are union members but whose unions don’t represent them well should visit optouttoday.com to learn more about how to opt out of a union, allowing them to follow their consciences and saving them union dues.  

More school closures following the learning loss associated with the COVID-inspired school shutdowns are unacceptable. (View Washington Policy Center’s recent study, “The effect of emergency-ordered school closings, learning loss and mask mandates on children,” by WPC Center for Education Director Liv Finne.) 

About this Kent scuffle, Finne writes, “The move is about money, of course.” And she details the following data points:

  • Teachers in Kent have gotten an average pay and benefits increase of $30,000 in the last few years, a 31% raise.
  • In 2015, total average teacher pay and benefits were $94,696. In 2022, average teacher pay and benefits are $124,625. See reports from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
  • This high level of teacher pay, health care, paid vacation and other benefits is more than the average household earnings of taxpayers who fund the school budget.
  • Per student spending in Kent is $19,654, more than the tuition at most private schools.
  • Student enrollment in Kent Public Schools fell last year by 642 students.

“At a time when Kent Public Schools is losing students, union officials should be thinking about attracting families back to the schools, not calling controversial strikes to give families even more reason to seek learning alternatives,” Finne concludes.

Public employee strikes are against the law, cause harm to students and families, erode public trust and hurt the workers involved in them. This is the wrong way to do business. 

Instead of hostage-taking, unions and teachers need to have discussions with their districts, the state and the public about educational priorities, so basic needs come first. Right now, wants and needs chosen for schools are debatable and can negatively impact workplace conditions.

While those conversations are happening, and students are receiving taxpayer-funded educations, the Legislature needs to establish penalties for employees who engage in unlawful strikes as soon as possible. Strikes that harm parents, children and the teachers they adore need to be expelled.

Kent Education Association should know better. See this 2009 court ruling concerning its strike activity: https://www.washingtonpolicy.org/library/doclib/Kent_strike_2009.pdf.

In this ruling the court said, “The strike interferes with the Plaintiff’s legal obligation to provide comprehensive educational services to the 26,000 students enrolled in the District,” and, “The strike obstructs and prevents students from obtaining the free and appropriate public education to which they are legally entitled under Washington law,” and “The strike has idled over 1,000 classified employees who are unable to work when school is not in session; and who will not be paid during the period of work stoppage.”

Elizabeth Hovde is a policy analyst and the director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is a Clark County resident.

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