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Throwing Strikes: Unions Protest Teacher Pay Proposals As Lawmakers Open Special Session

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Hundreds of Washington state teachers and other supporters fill the steps of the Legislative Building as they cheer and hold signs Saturday, April 25, at a Washington Education Association rally.

On Wednesday, Sedro-Wooley teachers walked off the job for a day. On Thursday, Bainbridge Island and Burlington-Edison teachers plan to do the same.

After that, seven more local teachers unions have approved similar "one-day strikes" as the Washington Legislature convenes a special session to finish a two-year state budget — a pocketbook issue for educators, who say neither political party's spending plans do enough to reverse six years of stagnant wages.

'Difficult To Stay In The Profession'

Both political parties have proposed funding increases of more than $1.3 billion on K-12 education, including cost-of-living raises for teachers. House Democrats have proposed increasing the state's monthly contribution to teachers' insurance benefits by 22 percent over the next two years.

But the state's largest teachers union says neither party's proposal goes far enough. Washington Education Association leaders take particular issue with Senate Republicans, who want smaller cost-of-living raises than the Democrats and hold insurance contributions flat.

"After five years with no increase in state funding for teacher healthcare, a lot of educators ... are actually taking home less money than they were in the past," said WEA spokesman Rich Wood. "That really makes it difficult for people to stay in the education profession — especially the hard-working, dedicated, qualified people that we want working with our kids."

But Teachers Have 'Pretty Good Public Sector Jobs'

The protests highlight a point of contrast the two parties will have to reconcile as their budget proposals move forward. House Democrats propose spending $360 million more on teacher compensation than the Senate GOP, said Kim Justice, a senior budget analyst at the left-leaning Washington State Budget & Policy Center.

But House Democrats include a new tax as part of their budget plan — something Republicans have opposed. Paul Guppy, a vice president at the right-leaning Washington Policy Center, said he would prefer Democrats drop their proposals, which includes new revenues from a proposed capital gains tax on the wealthy.

"They're being asked to pay more in taxes to pay for COLA's and benefit increases to people who have pretty good public sector jobs," Guppy said.

Pay Isn't The Only Factor

Though pay is a prime issue behind the "one-day strikes" in Western Washington, union leaders say it's not the only issue driving teachers to the picket lines.

For instance, though both parties' budgets include funding to decrease class sizes in Grades K-3, the unions are dismayed by a lack of support for Initiative 1351, through which voters called for lower class sizes in all grades — a proposal neither House Democrats nor Senate Republicans fund in their budgets.

In its McCleary ruling, the State Supreme Court singled out school districts' dependence on local property taxes to cover expenses the state should pay. But Wood said the WEA opposes a plan from leading Senate Republicans to overhaul how property tax levies fund schools because it would undercut local collective bargaining.

As of Wednesday, the WEA said 18 local teachers unions had held or already approved one-day strikes.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.