a Black woman with natural hair wearing a grey shirt and black jacket stands in a crowd. she holds a brown cardboard sign with the text "The youth are not disposable" written in blocky black text
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JANUARY 14: Public school students protest outside of the Chicago Public Schools headquarters after walking out of their classrooms on Jan. 14, 2022, in Chicago. The students walked out of class to demand a voice in the ongoing battle between the school district and the teacher's union over COVID-19 safety measures. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On Sept. 7, some 50,000 students in Seattle should have had their first day of school. However, a strike enacted by the Seattle Education Association (SEA), pushed the start date back for Seattle Public Schools (SPS)—the largest school district in Washington state—by a week to Sept. 14. 

According to SEA proposals, significant points of contention that led to the strike included insufficient pay and unmanageable caseloads for paraprofessionals. The proposal also points to a demand for increased multilingual support in schools and more reasonable student-to-staff ratios. 

“I am on strike because supports for Individualized Education Program students are important to me. Proper accommodation means there are plenty of instructional assistants, equitable caseloads, and workloads for special education teachers,” Hazel Koons, a math teacher at Interagency High School in Seattle, shared at the picket lines. 

The strike was officially suspended on Tuesday, Sept. 13, due to a tentative agreement reached between the SEA and SPS. Formal ratification of the new contract followed with a vote on Sept. 19; results were announced on Sept. 20. 

Educator strikes take hold in Washington State

However, the SEA hasn’t been the only teachers union to strike this academic season, and it likely won’t be the last. 

Before the SEA’s strike, another teachers union in Washington State, the Kent Education Association (KEA), was also on strike for 15 days before they reached a tentative agreement with the district. Similar to the SPS district and other school districts along the state’s I-5 corridor, the Kent School District (KSD) is also facing enrollment declines despite being one of the largest districts in Washington State. This decline is due to rising costs of living and the ability to telework causing families to seek greener pastures in more affordable parts of the state.

Likewise, KEA’s demands echoed SEA’s with union bargaining focusing primarily on pay increases and more practical class sizes according to an interview between KEA union vice president Layla Jones and The Seattle Times.

“There’s a teacher shortage nationwide and people leaving the profession,” Jones told The Seattle Times. “It’s scary there are not enough teachers coming up to replace the ones leaving. We need competitive pay to maintain the teachers we have and recruit new ones.”

Beyond Seattle and Kent, the Eatonville Education Association (EEA) and the Ridgefield Education Association (REA) also went on strike, with the latter ending Sept. 18 after the union reached a tentative agreement with the school district.

Policy experts, like former Washington Treasurer Jim McIntire have long pointed to the state’s extremely regressive tax structure as a critical reason for funding gaps in public services like public education. In Washington, the state is required to provide school districts with state funds for “basic education.” However, the funding amount is based on the legislature’s assumption of what districts will need, leading it to fall short for many school districts, especially ones with large enrollments and high overhead costs. When the funding provided by the legislature does not fully cover a district’s costs, districts turn to levies and bonds to close the gap, but they can’t always make up the difference.

In an open letter regarding the SEA strike to SPS community members, School Board Director Lisa Rivera-Smith highlights this issue of present and future funding difficulties. 

“Maybe the real moral of this story is that we need our state legislators and education officer to acknowledge the impossible situation Seattle is in,” Rivera-Swith penned. “We can’t squeeze the water that we need to live out of the rocks they’ve given us.”

Looking beyond Washington 

Outside of the Evergreen State, in Ohio, the Columbus Education Association (CEA) made headlines for enacting a strike for the first time in 47 years after the district walked away from the bargaining table, leaving teachers with a final offer they found unsatisfactory. 

“Columbus City Schools is over 100 years old, and in that time they have been very slow in the last quarter century in working on repairing and fixing these old buildings. Now there have been some new buildings, but it’s sad that in 2022 we still have so many buildings that don’t have functioning air conditioning, problems with vermin, bad plumbing, and lead paint,” alleges Regina Fuentes, the spokesperson for the CEA. Fuentes is a veteran teacher, having taught for Columbus City Schools (CCS) for 24 years and counting, and is herself a graduate of the district. 

According to NBC4 Columbus, three CCS schools—the Columbus Alternative High School, Hubbard Elementary School, and Mifflin Middle School—will operate without centralized AC in their buildings this year. 

However, in response to these concerns, school district officials like Columbus City Schools Board of Education President Jennifer Adair paint a different picture. 

“We offered a generous compensation package for teachers and provisions that would have a positive impact on classrooms. Our offer was also responsive to the concerns that have been raised by CEA during the negotiations process,” Adair shared with The Columbus Dispatch

Ultimately, the strike was relatively short—lasting only five days—but fruitful for the CEA. 

“[The district] had to come back to the table. This time we went well into the night, 14 hours of negotiating. We had 10 outstanding issues still to discuss, and of the 10 things that we needed to settle, we won nine of them,” shares Fuentes.

Fuentes maintains that the strike was always about, and for, CCS students. “In our case, as teachers, our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions,” says Fuentes. 

Teacher shortages and strikes

Today, the landscape of K-12 public education in the U.S. faces the challenge of mitigating both an uptick in strikes and what is being referred to as a national teacher shortage, all amidst the fallout of an ongoing pandemic. 

Historically, events, like WW2, that worsened the material conditions of working-class people often led to national waves of strikes for teachers and other professions alike. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different, having changed a lot of long-held assumptions about public education in the U.S. as bedrooms became classrooms and parents working from home got a front-row seat to their child’s education. Faced with unprecedented levels of stress, teachers seeking change had two options: strike, or leave the profession. According to a 2021 RAND report, nearly a quarter of teachers said they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020-21 school year. 

“In the past teachers would strike. Now they tend to leave the profession for good rather than strike. The recent teachers shortage is a modern type of strike. You determine that the profession simply isn’t worth fighting for and you leave,” writes one Reddit user on the r/Teachers page. 

The exact magnitudes of teacher shortages in the U.S. are difficult to quantify due to their perennial nature and regional variance, but an August 2022 paper published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University conservatively estimates at least 36,000 vacancies in conjunction with at least 163,000 positions being held by underqualified individuals. Notable trends in this paper point to the most dramatic concentration in teacher vacancies in the South, a region where teacher unions have traditionally held less power. 

Perhaps what is happening today is a delayed exodus. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s affecting school districts all across the country. “[Teachers leaving the profession is] a major problem. It’s the No. 1 issue for superintendents,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Although not wholly the same thing, both teacher strikes and shortages lead to many of the same problems, such as unsupervised and unfed children and teenagers, increased crime among juvenile-aged youth, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Urban Economics, and the bottom line—students missing out on their education. Even so, in today’s climate, they both seem more unavoidable than ever. 

“We have to show [the school districts] that, if we are in fact creating the public citizens of tomorrow, then sometimes you gotta lay down the law, and you have to fight,” says Fuentes.

Maryam Noor is a current MPA Candidate at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and a freelance journalist based in Seattle, WA. She has previously received Bachelor's Degrees in Economics and...