Students in Washington state's third-largest school district are taking a fourth straight day off Friday as opposing sides in a teachers strike meet with a judge, after the instructors defied his order to return to the classroom.
The Tacoma School District teachers walked out Tuesday over issues including pay, class size and how job transfers are handled.
A state judge issued an order Wednesday that they go back to class, but the teachers refused.
On Thursday, about 93 percent of the nearly 1,600 teachers gathered at the Tacoma Dome arena and voted overwhelmingly to keep picketing.
Many students have joined the picket lines and hundreds rallied in front of the Tacoma Dome before and during Thursday's vote.
Rebecca Jimenez, a senior at Foss High School, said she was hoping the teachers would continue their strike.
"I think it's a good example to show. If you're going to do something, stick with it. Don't give up," she said.
Tacoma Education Association President Andy Coons said Thursday's vote was a sign that teachers agree.
"Each time we have this vote, it gets stronger," Coons said.
The contract issues being debated in Tacoma are echoed across the nation as school districts grapple with federally mandated school reform. The U.S. Department of Education wants every state and school district to update the way they evaluate teachers, and a weak economy has most states struggling to find enough money to pay teachers.
In Tacoma, the school district announced within an hour of the union vote that school would be canceled for a fourth day on Friday. While 28,000 students stayed home Thursday, representatives of the union and school district met with a state mediator.
On Friday, both sides will meet with Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff, who has scheduled a hearing for 1:30 p.m. to determine whether the union and the district are complying with his order for teachers to return to work and both sides to return to the negotiating table.
The 1,900 teachers have been working without a contract since school started Sept. 1. After weekend contract negotiations failed to result in an agreement, 87 percent of the union's membership voted to walk out.
Christy Wray, who teaches kindergarten at Whitman Elementary, has been with the school system during the past three Tacoma teacher strikes, including one in the 1970s and another in the 1990s. The teacher of 41 years said it was different this time.
"The issues in the past couple of strikes were transparent and both sides worked toward reaching an agreement," she said as she stood outside Lincoln High School. "This strike, we're being treated like we're naughty children."
Ken Klinger, a science teacher at First Creek Middle School, said morale among the teachers was "wonderful."
Although he would not say how he voted on the secret ballot, Klinger said he felt most teachers wanted to continue the strike until they had a new contract to vote on.
"We're standing up for our rights. This is America," he said.
A 2006 state attorney general's opinion said state and local public employees, including teachers, have no legally protected right to strike. But that opinion also noted state law lacks specific penalties for striking public employees.
The district has argued in court that 19 different judges in Washington state have ruled teacher strikes illegal since 1976. The union argued that the court should not inject itself into the bargaining process, and also suggested an injunction only applies to union leaders.
A hearing on an injunction to permanently stop the strike has been scheduled for Sept. 27.