In August 2009, the Kent Education Association (KEA) went on strike and won demands for smaller class sizes in the city of Kent, WA. Classroom size is a major issue in education. Many classes in Kent had 35-40 students, many of whom do not speak English as their first language, or barely at all. Socialist Alternative members visited the picket lines to demonstrate their support for this important struggle. Alton Sierra gives a report on this unheralded strike in northwestern Washington.
The Kent School Board attempted to discredit the striking teachers, giving misleading information about the costs of reducing class sizes. The school board also filed an injunction against the strike, imposing heavy fines on the union and strikers. In a key move, the striking teachers decided to break the law and stay on strike, knowing that such fines are almost never paid because of amnesty language in the final contract.
In another important move, striking Kent teachers reached out to the community for support, holding public meetings to talk to parents (even when the scheduled school board cancelled their meeting due to lack of content) and giving out flyers explaining real numbers regarding class sizes. Despite the fact that Kent pays teachers and educators much less than other school districts in the region, increased pay was not a demand for the strike, largely due to the local media attacking the strikers in light of the economic recession.
Through their outstanding struggle, the teachers won some important concessions. Smaller classrooms in elementary schools were achieved, and additional paid days were also gained. Middle and high school classroom size caps were not included in the contract.
A group of parents and community members who supported the strike has taken up the task of running candidates to replace the current school board. Two board districts in Kent are up for re-election this year, with the other three districts up next year.
The fight for better education in Kent is not over. The campaign to effectively defend public education has to continue to organize parents and create links with teachers, parents and students across the state.