Strike has been resolved, but many problems remain

Published in The News Tribune, September 25, 2011

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll probably recall the cult film The Endless Summer.   We seemed to be living through our own version of that movie the last few weeks.  Summer ends when kids are back in school, and like the perfect wave in that movie, our waiting never seems to end.

It’s hard to think of a better example than a teacher’s strike of an event where everyone loses.  The only way the public can “win” is if the strike provides some lessons about the shortcomings of our school system.  I can think of three.

Let’s start first with the Tacoma School District’s need to cut their budget — which Peter Callaghan (TNT, 9-1) and Patti Banks (TNT, 9-20) keenly pointed out is actually a problem created by the Legislature.  In Washington the state pays the vast majority of teachers’ salaries as part of its legal obligation to “amply fund education”.

In addition, each district is also subject to what is called a “levy lid”.  Simply put, districts are prohibited from spending more than a certain amount on their schools– around one dollar for every four that the state spends.  District dollars go for “extras” like athletics, gifted programs, after school activities and so on, with the state picking up all “basic education” expenses.  In fact, districts cannot legally spend on anything that is deemed “basic” to education.

When the Legislature cut salaries in the last budget, it left it to districts to either pass along the salary cuts to teachers or pay the difference.   But the latter “option” is not really an option for most districts.  With falling property values and high rates of unemployment, where do they find extra money?  Moreover, most districts are already spending at their “lid”.  Even if a district wanted to raise money to avoid cutting salaries, most legally can’t.

To say the least, this is an odd way to fund your schools:  a stagnant economy forces the state to downscale its responsibilities, so it pushes education expenses off on districts.  But state law prohibits districts from spending more money.

On this score, we would do well to look to what almost all other countries in the world do:  rely more on our national government to fund our schools.

Second, the main sticking point between the district and the teachers union seems actually not to have been about pay.  It was about teacher evaluation.  Essentially, the district wants greater leeway in making decisions about teachers’ career path.

As I’m sure is true of most parents with kids in the district, I can think of a few teachers I’d like to see escorted quickly to different career paths.  Yet we are able to keep teacher salaries low (and for many they are low) because of the job security that accompanies them.  Reducing job security is a good idea, but if we are committed to having our kids taught by excellent teachers, this has to be accompanied by pay sufficient to attract and retain such teachers.  Cutting salaries and also job security only make things worse; it also sends a punitive message to teachers.

If one thing is evident in the strike, it is that there is no love lost between Tacoma’s teachers and its administrators.  In this way the strike reveals a final lesson about our educational system:  it tends to foster rather than minimize conflict between different stakeholders.  In part this is because our school system consists of a poorly coordinated  bureaucracy that primarily seeks to control processes and the actions of educators, but does so in inconsistent ways that wind up fostering conflict rather than communicating a sense of purpose.

At heart, this is the main problem with the U.S.’s educational system:  institutionally, it doesn’t provide the support and coherent sense of purpose that is needed to ensure that teachers attend to their primary job of teaching.  The clear animosity between Tacoma teachers and their administrators is indicative of this.

The shortcomings in our educational system are ones of financing, teacher compensation, and its governance structure.   While we’re glad the strike is over, all of these underlying problems in our educational system remain.  And until we address these, our educational woes are likely to remain as endless as was that summer of 1966.