School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Tough Love in Washington State

In Washington state, the paper of record is The Seattle Times, and when it comes to education, the columnist of record is Lynne Varner.

 Yesterday Varner’s readers got a glimpse inside a family fight that typically goes on behind closed doors. The fight pits the leadership of the powerful teachers’ union (Washington Education Association – WEA) against the centrist faction of the state Democratic party. The issue is education reform.

Although differences between the two factions have been simmering for years, the battle took center stage recently when Nick Hanauer, a major Democratic party donor, criticized the WEA’s refusal to embrace what he considers mainstream education policy reforms. In a blistering and now viral email, Hanauer took his party and the teachers’ union leadership to task:

I am despondent over my political party’s intransigence on the most important issue in the state – public education reform. I have seen the enemy, and it is us.

Hanauer continued:   “It is impossible to escape the painful reality that we Democrats are now on the wrong side of every important education-reform issue. Today, the [WEA] is literally strangling our public schools to death with an almost infinite number of institutionalized rules that limit change, innovation and excellence.”

A handful of moderate Republicans in the state legislature have stepped in, joining forces with some centrist Democrats to fight for reforms that the rest of the country and the Obama administration have championed for years, such as replacing seniority-only based hiring and dismissal rules with a fairer, more merit-based system.

Yet the WEA maintains such a tight grip on state education policy that it successfully thwarted passage of a modest bill introduced in January to lift the statewide ban on charter schools (Washington remains only one of nine states where it is illegal to open a charter school). The sole African-American member of the state legislature, Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D), sponsored the bill. It would have allowed up to ten charter schools to open per year, targeting at-risk communities.

According to Varner, in other states teachers’ unions and political leaders are coming together on many of the major education issues of our time. In places like New Haven, Connecticut and New York state, teachers’ unions are signing onto evaluation systems that take student performance into account, make tenure less automatic, and give school districts more control over teacher hiring and placement decisions. Varner observes that nationally, the American Federation of Teachers “has wisely chosen to work with state legislatures shaping teacher-evaluation systems.”

In Varner’s view, compromise will only happen here in Washington if WEA leadership starts listening to state Democratic leaders who want the state to “go big” on education reform:

“For [Washington Democratic] lawmakers, it will be hard to tell that ally [WEA], ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t support you on this issue.’ But that’s leadership. Tough love is difficult, but as any parent will tell you, it’s necessary sometimes.”

Beth T. Sigall

February 22, 2012


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