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Judge vs. teachers in Kent

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Sep. 3, 2009 at 7:40 pm |
September 4, 2009 6:20 am

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Some leaders of Washington’s teachers unions seem to share the credo of Boeing’s machinists: You’ve got to strike on a regular basis, or you don’t get taken seriously.

That pugnacious attitude has a respectable heritage rooted in the early years of the labor movement – the days of sweatshops, company goons and starvation wages. Today it often flat makes no sense.

We get what the teachers were saying when they went out on strike in Kent this week. They – and thousands like them elsewhere in Washington – are fed up with the financial squeeze public education is suffering under the state budget.

In many instances, fewer teachers are being asked to teach larger classes. Educators are right when they say that students are getting hurt.

Still, 2009 is the wrong time for a strike – and Kent is the wrong place.
In terms of the law, there’s never a right time for a teachers strike. The illegality of such strikes is well-established in Washington.

When courts are asked to order teachers back into the classroom, they routinely do so. That happened again Thursday when King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas told Kent’s teachers to return to work next Tuesday.

In a 2006 opinion, state Attorney General Rob McKenna summed up the law succinctly:

“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.” The opinion cited three statutes “affirmatively prohibiting public employees from striking.”

Even if the Kent teachers’ strike were legal, staging it in the depths of this recession is no way to win public sympathy. Anyone who’s been paying attention knows why the state Legislature shorted the schools this year: Lawmakers had to balance the budget in the face of a staggering fiscal crisis.

Other state programs – including health care for the poor – were being cut right and left. There’s no way schools could be held harmless when lawmakers were scrambling to close a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall.

Teachers in Kent want their school administrators to dip more deeply into reserve funds to reduce class size. From this distance, we can’t assess the details of the district’s budget or its contract offer. But we have noticed that school systems with healthy reserves have been better able to shield their teachers from mass layoff notices and other recessionary agonies.

In any case, the chief reason school districts can’t be more generous is the funding they got from the Legislature. And the chief reason the Legislature can’t be more generous is the recession.

Fortunately, most teachers in Washington – including those in the South Sound – seem to be gritting their teeth and toughing things out, much like their non-teacher neighbors.

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