The school year didn't start yesterday, as planned, for Seattle public school students, who have gotten an impromptu extension of their summer vacation due to striking teachers.
The Seattle Education Association (SEA) began its strike on September 7, demanding higher teacher-to-student ratios, particularly in special needs and multilingual classrooms, laptops for teaching assistants, and—naturally—higher pay.
The union notes on its website that 93 percent of its members "are working more than our assigned or contract hours," while a quarter of its members log an additional 10 hours per week. Meanwhile, "the cost of living in Seattle is skyrocketing, shortages of educators are getting worse, and our pay is not keeping pace," argues SEA. Accordingly, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) "must pay all staff respectful wages and must address the unacceptably low wages for Education Support Professionals."
But public employee salaries are searchable for the state of Washington, and some 40 percent of SPS' full-time teachers actually make more than $100,000 per year, according to 2020–21 salary data reported by The Center Square (and easily searchable via this database). The pay scale for SPS teachers, which depends on tenure and educational attainment, ranges from roughly $60,000 to $123,500 annually for 7.5-hour workdays (37.5-hour workweeks) and a shorter working year than people in the private sector typically endure. That's not including pension benefits, which can be quite generous depending on the number of years teachers log in the system.
It's unclear what about these wages aren't "respectful," but they are, nevertheless, one of the major sticking points—emphasized repeatedly in materials the union has provided on its strike—that is preventing some 50,000 students and families from starting the school year.
To be sure, many teachers are now burdened by making up for lost instructional time that resulted from COVID school closures (something teachers unions played no small part in lobbying to extend). Dealing with the challenge of learning loss, with some 40 percent of K-4 Washington state students not reading at grade level, will be no small feat for teachers this school year.
Still, while public employees attempt to negotiate pay and working conditions they want, it's public school parents who are left in the lurch, with no viable alternatives and no real means of holding their school district accountable—other than by taking the drastic step of pulling kids out of public school entirely, a threat more and more parents have made good on over the last two years.
The customer (as opposed to the employer) feels the pain when government school employees strike.
The employer has no incentive to change to help teachers or students.
School choice would fix this problem by providing real accountability.
— Corey A. DeAngelis (@DeAngelisCorey) September 7, 2022
"I have gone from a cheerleader for public schools to a believer in school choice," one Seattle public school parent, who wishes to stay anonymous, tells Reason. "I have lost any faith I had in public sector unions. Top of scale teachers are making a ridiculous amount of money, more than I make as a senior-level tech worker," she adds, emphasizing that while she didn't always feel this way, the low quality of instruction provided by SPS over the years has been disheartening.
"My kid should be in the second day of her senior year, not playing video games on our couch."