Callaghan: School reformers losing PR battle, winning the war

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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While anti-school reform elements among teachers and parents have been winning the rhetoric battle, they’ve been losing the legislative war. You may have heard the talk: Those who want to start holding adults in the schools just as accountable as the kids are really out to “privatize” education. Those who seek higher standards are dupes for billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates.

It goes on: Americans who want to encourage the brightest college students to choose teaching, who want to reward good teachers, who want to help weak teachers get better or get a different job must, in fact, be anti-union teacher haters.

Such lines have been incredibly effective in rallying those in public education who oppose reform. And this rhetoric has succeeded in rewriting Democratic party catechism on school reform. This disconnect was highlighted recently by an exchange between a major Democratic party donor and the president of the Washington Education Association. Nick Hanauer wrote that he would consider supporting Republican candidates because Democrats are “on the wrong side of every important education reform issue.”

Hanauer’s own rhetoric was overheated, but his bona fides as a progressive can’t be doubted. He is among the national business leaders who say the wealthy don’t pay enough in taxes, and he helped bankroll the unsuccessful high-earners state income tax. But that didn’t insulate him from criticism as a privatizer who was out to demonize teachers.

While anti-reformers have been talking, reformers have been winning. The bill that Hanauer was trying to light a fire under passed easily and was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire last week. Yet when the decisions were being made, the WEA was not in the picture -- literally or figuratively. The union was figuratively absent from negotiations that strengthened Gregoire’s weak first effort to improve teacher evaluation rules and use factors other than seniority in teacher layoffs and assignments. That is a reversal from the last time the governor and the Legislature took on this issue in 2010. Then, the WEA leaders were part of the private meetings where the bill was written and Gregoire gave the union virtual veto power over amendments.

The union was literally absent last week when supporters posed for photos with Gregoire after she signed House Bill 5895. Gregoire explained the union’s absence by saying it wanted to stick with the 2010 system by which local district pilot projects were building new evaluation systems. The state will now pick evaluation systems that districts must use. The law also requires that test scores be used in many evaluations and creates a path for tenured teachers to lose that tenure if their performance wanes. (Unlike some states, however, individual evaluations will not be made public, something Bill Gates has condemned as “a capricious exercise in public shaming.”)

The WEA also was unhappy with a change to teacher assignment rules. Now, locally bargained systems use seniority to decide which teaches are laid off or reassigned. The new law demands that other factors -- especially evaluations -- be included. That undercuts a process Gregoire herself helped negotiate to settle the Tacoma school strike. A district/teacher commission has been working on a way to resolve conflicts over school assignment and has all but agreed to ignore teacher evaluations. That wisely won’t be allowed under the new law.

Gregoire continues to say Washington’s method is superior, because it has worked with teachers and other “stakeholders.” By involving the people who work in the schools, Gregoire argues, there will be a higher likelihood of buy-in. The new law threatens that narrative, for good reason. Buy-in to a weak system isn’t a virtue.

While reform opponents were sharpening their talking points, reform advocates were working the bill in Olympia. That allowed Democratic office holders to pay lip service to the anti-reform rhetoric while voting for reform.