Puget Sound Business Journal – March 16, 2021
Gov. Jay Inslee and Superintendent Chris Reykdal, responsible for K-12 public education throughout Washington, are personally experiencing the business side of the monster they’ve until now tried to appease — the Washington Education Association (WEA).
The largest representative of public school educators, the WEA is notoriously in lockstep with the Democratic Party, each fueling the other’s agenda.
The symbiotic relationship between Democratic leaders and the state’s biggest teacher union is what has made the current clash so striking. The disagreement regards reopening K-12 schools. At stake is control of state schools — and, over the past several months, teacher unions have called the shots in our government-funded and run K-12 public education system.
In late January, in perhaps the first instance on record of his disagreement with a teacher union position, Inslee stated, “The fear of this is understandable, but it is not backed up by our experience. … Our experience has showed we can operate a school safely.”
Private schools nationwide largely resumed full in-person instruction last fall. Six months of data confirm schools can reopen — all grades, five-days-a-week — while avoiding spreading the virus.
Following a CDC report in mid-February, Inslee reiterated, “schools can safely reopen.” The report revealed “little evidence” of widespread Covid-19 transmission in schools and confirmed that in-person K-12 schools are not a primary driver of community transmission. Additionally, Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director, emphasized that teachers receiving the vaccination is not a prerequisite for reopening schools.
When ignored by union leaders, Inslee began touring in-person classrooms with photographers, trying to sway public opinion. When that too failed to bring union leaders around, Inslee followed President Biden’s example, pushing teachers up in priority for receiving the vaccine.
Still unswayed, the Seattle Education Association (SEA), not only voted to keep schools closed, but union leaders accused district leadership of utilizing bullying tactics.
For months, teacher unions have touted safety concerns as the reason campuses can’t reopen, which has resulted in Washington ranking 45th for providing in-person instruction according to Burbio data, despite Washington placing fifth nationwide for the lowest rate of coronavirus cases. Seattle has the lowest Covid-19 hospitalization rate of any major U.S. city.
Inslee, like Biden, continues to pump extensive Covid-19 relief money into the K-12 education system. However, just as with teachers being expedited to the front of the vaccine line, the financial provisions so far have not required schools to reopen. On it goes while working parents, generally far lower on the vaccination list, are left paying high state and local taxes for education their children are not adequately receiving.
Across the state, unions have refused to reopen schools to the detriment of students, driven by a desire for dominance and getting demands met rather than any justified safety concerns.
On March 12, Inslee took significant action, announcing an emergency proclamation prohibiting K-12 schools from refusing on-site instruction. The order requires all K-12 schools statewide to offer the option of at least 30% of pre-pandemic on-site instruction hours per week to students by April 5 for K-6 and April 19 for all K-12.
WEA President Larry Delaney’s same-day retort signals coming defiance. “The governor’s announcement assumes that districts have the ability to provide safe teaching and learning. Some districts are not yet prepared to safely welcome students back to buildings.”
Further response over the coming days and weeks by the WEA, SEA, and other districts’ unions will be telling. Support from the public, which in Washington has historically been pro-union, may wane if teacher unions continue to defy not only parents but now their elected Democratic leaders.
Unions leaders love to talk about protecting students and championing student equity. Yet, their self-absorbed holdout has not only hurt the children (and parents) of our state but severely exacerbated the achievement gap among socioeconomic and ethnic groups.
No matter whether Inslee or the teacher unions ultimately win the power politics battle, Washington’s children have brutally lost.