Democratic funder v. unions in Washington State on education reform

We’ve had some excitement here in Washington State in the last couple weeks. The debate is primarily focused on the issue of charter schools, which some Democrats support but are opposed by the Washington Education Association.

First, multi-millionaire Democratic donor and founder of the League of Education Voters, Nick Hanauer, wrote an email in which he argued that while he is a strong supporter of unions, the WEA opposes innovation and

“is literally strangling our public schools to death with an almost infinite number of institutionalized rules that limit change, innovation and excellence.

Workers deserve fair wages and reasonable protections. But 90% of what is in most teacher contracts is self-destructive bullshit designed to protect the adults with the most seniority and the least ability in the system. And everyone knows this. Even other union leaders in private will admit that the teachers make all unions look bad because they are so obviously counter-productive and self interested.”

Obviously this didn’t sit well with WEA supporters, and WEA president Mary Lindquist responded with an open letter in which she states (among many other things) that:

“WEA does support, however, the hundreds of innovative schools across our state encouraging every student to live up to his or her potential, to succeed in math, science, the arts, technology and many other disciplines. These public schools are leading examples of what can be done in a robust public education system.”

At which point Hanueuer shot back with a business lecture in which he argues:

“…It is not classroom teachers who are afraid of change and innovation—it is their union.

I am not a teacher and would not presume to tell you how to teach. But in my experience as a business leader and entrepreneur, I have observed that all high-performance organizations share elements that are largely missing from our State’s public education system: relentlessly high standards, a culture of excellence, and a systemic commitment to innovation.”

If this is starting to look like a tennis match, it turned into a doubles match as Seattle Times columnist Lynne Varner backed up Hanauer with an editorial in which she argues that the split among Democrats regarding charter schools and teachers unions is long overdue.

To which Lindquist then volleyed with both a letter to Varner (which appears to have disappeared from the Internet; I was sure she had posted it to Facebook at one point) and a second response to Hanauer.

Finally, Lindquist’s tennis partner surfaced in the form of Representative, and candidate for governor, Jay Inslee (alas, I can’t find that letter online either). But the tennis analogy broke down when State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz wrote a lengthy letter arguing that education reform is like the weather.

Most recently Western Washington University professor and United Faculty of Washington State president Bill Lyne weighed in with a colorful, but pointed letter. The entire letter is worth reading, but the best part, in my opinion, is when he points out how education reformers from the business world actually fail to advocate for running the school system like a business:

“If a smart business person like you were running public education and looking to genuinely succeed, you would hire the very best people you could find, you would hire enough of them, you would pay them very well, you would get out of their way and let them do their jobs, and you would fire them if they didn’t get that job done. The only thing that the education “reform” movement seems to be genuinely interested in is the firing part.”

Read the full exchange and tell me what you think. I know my fellow transformED readers and writers have experience in states with charter schools and are solutions-oriented. How can Washington address these issues of charter schools and teacher accountability once and for all?

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