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Seattle teachers strike: Why 50,000 kids won't be going back to school

Thousands of public school teachers are set to strike in Seattle Wednesday, the scheduled first day of classes, after contract talks fell through over Labor Day weekend.

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    Seattle Education Association negotiators and supporters announce that they plan to start the school year on picket lines. Photographed on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, at the John Stanford Center in Seattle. Negotiations broke down and Seattle Public School teachers will go on strike for the first time in 30 years.
    Joshua Trujillo/seattlepi.com via AP
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More than 50,000 students in Seattle are looking at extra vacation time after teachers in the district voted to strike late Tuesday, just hours before classes were due to start for the year.

Members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA), which represents about 5,000 teachers and support staff, said they will picket at all 97 schools in Washington state’s largest school district Wednesday following stalled contract negotiations with the Seattle School Board through the long weekend, The Associated Press reports. At issue are class sizes, student testing, and teacher pay, among other concerns.  

“Our SEA Bargaining Team demonstrated patience and near superhuman endurance over this Labor Day weekend and throughout the day today,” SEA president Jonathan Knapp said in a statement. “In the end, the school board just never gave them enough to reach a tentative agreement.”  

The strike – the first to be staged by teachers in Seattle since 1985 – spells further trouble for Washington’s public school system, already struggling with an existential crisis in the face of a state Supreme Court ruling that charter schools are unconstitutional, as well as statewide disputes over funding. 

The stalled negotiations also reflect broader problems around public school funding across the nation. Chicago public school teachers began the school year Tuesday without contracts, which expired at the end of June, WLS-TV News reports, and a state budget impasse in Pennsylvania has led teachers in at least one school district to begin working without pay, according to The Christian Science Monitor. Districts in Florida and New York are dealing with similar issues, as well.

In May, hundreds of educators in more than 60 school districts in Washington called on state legislators to fund smaller class sizes at every level, and provide competitive pay and benefits for educators. Although most of the districts involved have reached deals, Seattle and the city of Pasco – which began striking last week – continue to butt heads.

The state legislature has not given teachers a cost-of-living raise in six years, according to the SEA. The union wanted a 10.5 percent raise over two years, while the district stayed close to its initial offer of a nearly 9 percent increase over the next three years. Other sticking points include teacher evaluations and the length of the school day; the union claimed the district wanted to extend the school day by 30 minutes without offering teachers additional pay.

"Nobody really wants to strike, but at this point the school board has not come to the table with a serious proposal to get it done," Phyllis Campano, the union's vice president, told NBC News. "The union voted to walk out last week if a tentative agreement wasn't reached by the first day of school."

The school board, however, said in a statement that Seattle’s school day – at 6 hours and 10 minutes – remains shorter than those of other districts, which puts at a disadvantage “children who desperately need more time with outstanding teachers in order to succeed.” It also claims to have increased salaries for teachers by 23 percent since 2007.

In response to the strike, the school board has voted to take legal action against teachers and other school employees, The Seattle Times reports. “A strike for any reason by District teachers or other personnel is harmful and damaging to the District, our students, and our community,” the board resolution said.

School board president Sherry Carr also noted that the failed negotiations were “a ‘textbook case’ of a broken K-12 funding system and a ‘deep overreliance’ on local property-tax levies to fund education,” according to the Times.

Still, both sides said they will continue to work to find a compromise, even as the strike begins.

“We are committed to continuing negotiations,” Ms. Carr said.

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