Photo depicting educators wearing red T-shirts and carrying protest signs outside of Franklin High School.

Slim Gains for South End Educators Echo After Weeklong Strike

by Ari Robin McKenna

For the next three years, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) ratified by the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Board and the general membership of the Seattle Education Association (SEA), the union representing teachers, instructional assistants (IAs), and office workers, will be in effect. 

Though the contract includes an across-the-board pay raise and a number of other significant gains, most SEA members do not seem to have gained much ground in their stated priority areas, particularly in their first and third priorities: “Adequate support for special education and multilingual education,” and “Living wages for all SPS educators.” These are issues that impact South Seattle especially. Students of Color are disproportionately represented in the overall special education population, the majority of SPS’ multilingual learners attend South End schools, and the educators not making a living wage are more likely to be People of Color who live here.

Though there was strong support for teachers in the City of Seattle during the weeklong strike, the increase in support for special education and multilingual students was minimal, and the pay raise for those educators who make the least still doesn’t allow them to afford to live in Seattle.

Adequate Support for Special Education

A result of the last three-year collective bargaining agreement (see Page 92) in 2019, a special education joint task force had been meeting monthly for at least a year before this round of bargaining. This task force included district, SEA, and Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) leaders; principals; SEA-appointed educators; SPS-appointed members of its special education (SPED) department; and five “family representatives” whose children have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). The task force’s aim was essentially to engage in pre-bargaining toward creating a more inclusive special education system, and to address the “inherent structured institutional racism” in the “current service pathways.”

The joint SPS/SEA Special Education Task Force seems to have made a concerted, united push for greater levels of “inclusion” in SPS. Or, in other words, maximizing the amount of time students receiving special education services are included in general education settings. Inclusion has widespread, proven benefits for students in general education settings and for students in general education classes.

SPS’ special education service pathways, such as “Resource,” “Access,” and “Social Emotional” (SEL), too often provide IEP services for these students apart from their general education peers, and Students of Color are more likely to be served in more-restrictive pathways. Three South End SEL educators (who prefer not to be named), all Black males, have told the Emerald within the past year that it’s an “open secret” that SEL is a catchall pathway for Black boys in particular to be “over-excluded,” increasingly isolated, and without a proper diagnosis or support to get them re-included in the general education setting. 

Recent data from a records request supports their assertion profoundly. Based on last month’s data, 1,095 Black students and 872 white students are in the SEL SPED pathway, despite the fact that there are more than three times as many white students in SPS. “Hispanic” and “multiracial” students are also overrepresented in the SEL pathway. While white and Black students are proportionally represented in the least-restrictive SPED pathways (namely “Resource” and “Access”), in the most-restrictive pathways (“Distinct” and “Focus”), we again find that Black students are vastly overrepresented, with more Black students in those pathways than white students. These statistics provide a grim picture of how the school-to-prison pipeline still operates in SPS — especially considering that a Black person designated to any special education pathway is statistically more likely to be arrested by the age of 28 (55%) than not.  

Another inequitable aspect is that wealthier parents benefit from being able to pay for their children to get independently assessed for disabilities, such as autism, dyslexia, and ADHD — which are often not identified by SPS’s evaluation process.

The joint task force recommended a three-year process, including collapsing “Resource,” “Access,” and “SEL” into a single category, and to distribute workloads not by student-to-teacher ratios, but by a workload calculator the task force would begin developing this year alongside educators. Yet the vision for how this would be an improvement on the pathway system and curb its racist effects was never communicated comprehensively to the public, dooming it to become a bargaining bomb despite both sides already having pre-bargained around it.

The agreed-on language from the 2019 CBA about reporting the joint task force’s findings was, “The Task Force will report out to the community (SPS and SEA) on work being done in the task force, no less than three times a year.”

During a board meeting earlier this month, under pressure from District 6’s Leslie Harris to clarify whether mentioning the task force progress during the Student Services, Curriculum and Instruction Committee was sufficient (1:52:22), Associate Superintendent of SPS Concie Pedroza replied, “Those are public meetings.”

SEA doesn’t seem to have distributed the work of the joint task force to its general membership either.

At an October rally about special education staffing, co-organized by SEA and the Special Education PTSA, the slogan “Needs before Numbers” was central and hinted at the work the joint task force was then beginning to undergo: to do away with ratios, which lock in how many students each special education teacher has on their caseload, in favor of a workload calculator, where teachers’ workloads will be based on students’ IEP minutes, which can vary greatly per student.

Then, something changed, and lowering special education teacher ratios became a rallying call for teachers leading up to and during the strike, despite ratios having been pre-bargained out of the equation by their own leadership.

Meme posted to SEA’s Instagram account the day before teachers voted to go on strike.

Uti Hawkins, SEA’s vice president and lead bargainer, and Marla Rasmussen, SEA’s paraprofessional president, were the only SEA members on both the SEA bargaining team and the joint task force. (Joaquín Rodríguez, SEA’s Center for Racial Equity director and a member of the SEA bargaining team, attended only the last few joint task force meetings since being elected in April.) The Emerald reached out to Hawkins and Rasmussen two weeks ago about what communication of the task force progress looked like, but we have not yet received a response from either.

When the Seattle Council PTSA (SCPTSA) and the Special Education PTSA decided to leak the joint task force recommendations to the public, they disrupted what had been more or less a communication vacuum.

Samantha Fogg, the SCPTSA co-president, said they decided to leak the recommendations because they believed in the work of the task force, but “this information inside the task force wasn’t making it to teachers in the classrooms, to families, to the broader public to understand.” This lack of communication, Fogg says, “created fear and confusion that we felt wasn’t necessary and could hopefully be alleviated.”

How would bargaining, the resulting strike, and the gains for special education have been different had the work of the joint task force been public knowledge? While that is uncertain, existing ratios have changed little and may phase out after this year, once the workload calculator has been developed, tested, and bargained over. Overages, or pay for special education teachers who go over their student-to-teacher ratio, will be addressed every two weeks instead of quarterly. While this measure is welcome, it is too little, and definitely too late.

The pre-bargained gains are in process, but the collective energy of a weeklong strike seems to have been misinformed.

Adequate Support for Multilingual Education

The other half of SEA’s first bargaining priority, support for multilingual education, doesn’t seem to have made nearly the progress necessary to keep pace with the population in the South End. Perhaps the main change in the current CBA in the realm of multilingual education, mentioned by both Pedroza and Rodríguez in recent public-facing settings, is a joint task force for multilingual (ML) education, beginning during this 2022–2023 school year and meeting quarterly for two years. One notable addition is, “The taskforce will draft an end of the year report by April 30 detailing any program recommendations.”

Other ML gains include $2,000 in onetime incentives for educators who earn an English Language Learner (ELL) endorsement and commit to three years in SPS, and $1,000 for those who already have an ELL or Dual Language certification and make a similar commitment. There’s also the relatively vague but aspirational “commitment to increase communication and access to Dual-Language programs for students from partner language communities.” Yet it remains unclear whether the scale of the challenge to serve multilingual learners is being recognized by either side of the bargaining table — especially as it relates to the South End.

A 2019 study by the Road Map Project found that in 2019, 79% of South Seattle’s Students of Color were “emergent multilingual.” Currently, Road Map Project data has Students of Color making up 78% of South Seattle’s students, so the majority of the South End’s students are, or will have been, receiving multilingual education services. Data requested from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) shows that only 16.7% of the South End’s classroom teachers are either bilingual or ELL endorsed, slightly more than the SPS average of 13.9%.

Will these incentives be enough to triple the amount of educators who are bilingual or ELL endorsed? The South End’s students require educators trained on being able to include multilingual students in the general education setting (when possible) and to recognize their strengths.

Photo depicting an educator wearing a red T-shirt and a protest sign that reads, "Treat us like the future of your country depends on it!"
Educators on strike at Franklin High School in September 2022. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Living Wages for All Educators

SEA’s third bargaining priority was “Living wages for all SPS educators,” and all teachers, IAs, and office staff did receive a 14% raise over the next few years. Additionally, IAs will receive laptops and a onetime $1,500 holiday bonus. Yet there are still stark questions about whether IAs and new teachers — who are more likely to be People of Color — are being paid living wages.

Demographic info about IAs provided by SPS indicates that during the 2020–2021 school year, there were twice as many Black IAs as there were Black teachers, despite there only being about a third as many IAs (1,305) as teachers (3,700). In fact, 30% of all IAs are Black, and only 5% of Seattle’s public school teachers are Black. SPS data also indicates that Asian American and Pacific Islanders and Latinos working in Seattle public schools are significantly more likely to be IAs than teachers.

The difference in the pay scale is significant, with teachers’ salaries ranging from about $67,600 to $132,150, and basic paraprofessionals’ (IAs’) salaries ranging from about $39,775 to $54,100. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator has $44,557 as the minimum amount a single person with no kids would have to make to afford living in Seattle. A single parent of one child would need $79,672, and a married parent of one child $86,668 — both well above even the uppermost IA salaries, and also notably higher than teachers at the beginning steps of the pay scale. Because of programs like the Academy for Rising Educators, new teachers are more likely to be People of Color. Despite the across-the-board raise, IAs and teachers new to the profession needed to be prioritized above those educators already making a living wage, as is stated in SEA’s member priorities. This, also, was not meaningfully addressed during the 2022 SEA/SPS bargaining.

The strike that began this school year was lively in the South End, with thousands of educators getting quality time with each other, and many passersby celebrating the stand they took. By the end of the strike, South End high schools Rainier Beach, Franklin, and Cleveland hosted well-attended events welcoming teachers from proximal elementary, middle, and K-8 schools. There was music, dancing, barbecue, and lots of folks getting their steps in — all made possible by the hard work of strike captains. It was perhaps a period of healing after a string of impossibly difficult years for educators and school staff.

Yet for all the support they received from the community, the gains made on SEA members’ bargaining priorities were insubstantial, and South End schools can least afford to wait another three years.

Photo depicting educators from behind wearing red T-shirts and carrying protest signs outside of Franklin High School.
Seven striking Seattle Public Schools educators stand across the street from Franklin High School near one of the busiest intersections in the city — Rainier Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way — in the Mount Baker neighborhood. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him through his website.

📸 Featured Image: Educators on strike at Franklin High School in September 2022. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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