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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Note to legislators: W.C. Fields was right about working with children

OLYMPIA – A rare special session hearing on a bill to penalize teachers for one-day strikes featured a walkout by Democrats, questions of legal authority and denunciations of the education unions by conservative think tanks.

But all the drama was upstaged by a 10-year-old who told the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, “I think teachers should get paid for strike days. Teachers work so hard to teach their kids in their class.”  

Heather Gow, an Issaquah 4th grader, wasn't in school because her teacher was taking part in a one-day strike which many teachers are using to call attention to the differences in education spending in the budget negotiations. So like her classmates at Briarwood Elementary School students she had the day off; unlike her classmates, instead of staying home or playing with friends, she went to Olympia and attended the committee hearing.

From her front row seat in the mostly empty hearing room, Heather, 10, got a bit of schooling on legislative politics. She saw the committee's three Democrats walk to protest the bill that would keep teachers from being paid if they go out on strike. Seattle Sen. Bob Hasegawa, the panel's ranking Democrat, said it had legal, moral and logistical problems and wasn't a solution but “clearly only a messaging tool.”

That drew the ire of the bill's sponsor,  Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Potlatch Democrat who caucuses with majority Republicans and couldn't believe his fellow Democrats would walk out of a hearing. Similar bills have passed the Senate in 2001 and 2003 with bipartisan support, he said. “Teachers are public employees. They do not have the right to strike.”

Committee Chairman Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said he was disappointed the Washington Education Association, the state teachers' union, refused an invitation to attend. So did the Washington PTA, he said, as well as the attorney general's office and Stand for Children, a group that works to support public education.

Representatives from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction did show up, and said they agreed with some of the teachers' frustrations but didn't support the one-day strikes. Dan Steele of the school administrators association said Sheldon's bill could be a logistical nightmare for administrators who had to determine whether each teacher was out sick, taking a vacation day or on strike, and the law is "murky" on whether teachers' strikes are illegal.

No it's not, said Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank . They're clearly illegal, as well as being a breach of most labor contracts, said Finne, who added she believes “teachers have been treated very fairly in Washington state.” Jami Lund of the Freedom Foundation, another conservative think tank not supportive of public sector unions, said the Legislature should find a way to penalize the unions when strikes happen, like taking away their bargaining authority and setting penalties for strikes as an unfair labor practice, making it easy for parents to file civil suits and docking the state funding if superintendents encourage strikes.

When Baumgartner called for public comment on the bill, only three people had signed up, and two were Heather and her mom, Sue. Heather urged the committee not to find ways to punish teachers, and instead pay them for the strike day.

“We need to support our teachers in Washington," she said, adding that her class has 28 students and her teacher works really hard, with hours spent preparing for classes. “I mean, imagine yourself being a teacher.”

She later told reporters her teacher Patty McElligott deserved a day off, although she went to a rally at another district instead of staying home and relaxing.

“I just wanted to support my teacher because she does so much for us,” Heather said. 

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.