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Originally published September 2, 2009 at 12:11 AM | Page modified September 2, 2009 at 1:31 AM

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Danny Westneat

Teachers strikes are different

I'm the son of two teachers. So I think I was genetically programmed to believe that teachers know best. Which is why this week I've been...

Seattle Times staff columnist

I'm the son of two teachers. So I think I was genetically programmed to believe that teachers know best.

Which is why this week I've been feeling like a rebellious child. It's these teacher strikes. They have gotten absurd.

Take Kent. The three-day strike there is escalating into full-scale war. The end result almost certainly will be a judge ordering teachers back to work. Then, bitterness all around.

Yet what's the issue that's tearing that place apart? Believe it or not, the top one listed at the union's Web site is a dispute about staff meetings.

Back in the beginning — meaning before the 1970s — teachers really were second-class employees asked to do first-class jobs. Their pay was abysmal. Administrators often had the iron touch of dictators.

The strikes of the '70s (the first K-12 teacher strike in this state was in 1972) shook up that power structure — for the good, in my view. Teachers won more authority. Now they are paid a bit more like the professionals we expect them to be.

But a teachers strike is more than just part of a negotiation between workers and bosses, like it is at, say, Boeing. There's a third party that raises the stakes dramatically: parents and their kids.

My point is, if you're shutting down schools, you'd better have good reason. A reason that's morally unassailable.

"We want fewer meetings" doesn't cut it.

The Kent teachers say they're forced to have too many staff meetings. Fair enough. (One minute of meetings is too many for me.)

The teachers want to limit these staff and training meetings to two 60-minute sessions per month. The administrators want four per month. Two versus four. Really, Kent teachers and administrators? You've shut down a district of 27,000 students over this?

That's not all, of course. The district offered a 4.5 percent pay raise over two years. The teachers want about 10 percent. At a time when 0 percent would be progress to many of us, this dispute seems tone-deaf.

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The last issue is that classes are too big. The district says it doesn't have the money to make them meaningfully smaller. It would mean hiring teachers at a time when most districts are laying them off.

Ballooning class sizes is definitely worth shouting about. Only not so much at the Kent School District. It should be at the state Legislature, the one body that has the power to do much about it.

Ironically, this week in King County Superior Court, these same Kent administrators and teachers are doing just that. They are on the same side of a lawsuit arguing the state isn't paying its fair share for education.

I suppose you can fight with one arm and hold hands with the other. But the contrast between the lawsuit and the strike makes the strike seem like gamesmanship.

Up in Lake Stevens, teachers may be about to go on strike, too. This would be their third strike in 11 years. Isn't this starting to feel like a seasonal routine?

Yesterday the head of Kent schools said the strike there is illegal. Probably so — public employees generally don't have a right to walk off the job.

But when he said this, I realized that, to me, whether it's legal or not is a technicality. What matters is whether it's righteous. Deep down, legal or not, is it about something worth fighting for?

Sorry, Mom and Dad. I know I'm off the reservation here. But I think that this time, the teachers should go back to class.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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