It’s back to school for many kids across the country. But in Seattle, where public school teachers officially went on strike yesterday, it’s unclear when class will be back in session.
The school district and the teachers union have been unable to reach an agreement on a few remaining issues, and as of 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, Seattle Public School teachers are on strike. So far it looks like Thursday will turn out the same. And though the school district technically has the legal power to (try) to curtail it, that’d only be making a bigger mess of things.
See, a teacher’s right to strike in Seattle exists in a tricky gray area: While some public employees aren’t allowed to strike, teachers have no such interest arbitration or statute that forbids them to picket. Meaning that when contract negotiations reach a boiling point like this, there’s little recourse for them except to protest, unlike police officers who have a bargaining system.
But while the teachers went to the picket lines Wednesday morning, the superintendent plans on going to court to see if a judge will grant a temporary restraining order saying the teachers are doing “irreparable harm” to the kids if they continue striking.
It’s not the first time a school district has pulled this stunt; it’s happened around the country when teachers have threatened to strike in the past. And with the eyes of a nation of teachers watching, it probably seems like this is the simplest way to get everyone back to work.
The problem is, it’s not a very good one. One thing that seems to be clear to anyone even remotely near the picket lines is that nobody wants there to be a strike. Three city councilmembers even wrote to the Seattle school board to ask that they remember that, so far, the strike has been making logical requests in good faith.
Which is all the more clear when you remember that in 2012 the Washington State Supreme Court ruled the state’s system for funding education broken, and two years later held the legislature in contempt for not doing enough to fix that. Couple that with the rising cost of living in Seattle (something allegedly not reflected in the past few years of contract negotiations for teachers) and even if you don’t agree with the reasons for the strike, it’s impossible to say this conversation isn’t a long time coming. It’s something the Washington Supreme Court decision called out three years ago.
Filing a court order to get teachers to stop striking only shuts down a conversation around funding education it seems Seattle, Washington, and possibly the rest of the country seem in desperate need of. As the AP reports, educators around the country are paying attention to this issue too:
The head of the nation’s largest teachers union says “all eyes are on Seattle right now” as educators walk the picket lines.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said Seattle teachers are fighting for reasonable testing policies, a fair discipline policy and securing the tools they need to do their jobs.
Garcia says those are “issues that every educator in the country is grappling with right now.” She says that if teachers gain traction in Seattle, they will give hope to other educators nationwide.
Court penalties still won’t necessarily end the dispute, and it may not even get the teachers back in the classroom—Washington’s seen it before in 2011, when Pierce County teachers defied a judge’s order to return to work.From legalizing abortion to $15 minimum wage, Seattle has been a leader on issues before, and if Garcia is correct that educators around the country are looking to Seattle to set an example, this strike could just be a tinder. And shutting down that conversation will be notorious for the wrong reasons.
If nothing else, it would behoove the school district to remember that under the same gray area that makes striking murkily legal, teachers aren’t protected if they do choose to strike. Meaning that those walking the picket lines could technically be fired for doing so. As negotiations continue, the district should remember that these are people who are willing to meet you halfway, but have already been willing to risk everything they’ve got.