Callaghan: Democrats go from education reform champions to its foes

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

The turnaround is nearly complete. The party that birthed the education reform movement in Washington state is now the anti-reform party.

An issue that combined good policy with good politics has been ceded by Democrats to Republicans. An issue that began as a response to the achievement gap between the rich and the poor, between white and Asian students and children of color, has devolved into issues of public employee unions and conspiracy theories.

This is puzzling because it was Democratic governors beginning with Booth Gardner who put political capital behind the drive to stop accepting the status quo of mediocre public schools. Each governor since has embraced the reforms -- some more warmly than others. Sure, Washington has only had Democratic governors since 1985. But Democrats in the Legislature worked with like-minded Republicans to pass the first reforms in 1993's House Bill 1209. That law created statewide learning requirements and tests to measure those requirements.

Subsequent attempts to hold adults, not just kids, accountable for performance, to use data to measure what works and what doesn't, and to stop accepting failure would not have succeeded without leadership from Democrats. Yet now it is difficult to find a Democrat in the Legislature who hasn't instead embraced the rhetoric that all school reform is a right-wing attempt to privatize schools. In the House, the education committee is dominated by Democrats who file bills such as one to return us to the pre-HB 1209 days. The Senate Democratic caucus may be even weaker. The default position on any reform idea -- now put forward nearly exclusively by Republicans -- is to oppose.

Part of that response certainly is anger over the abrupt transfer of power from Senate Democrats to a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats. But it runs deeper. Rather than engage in assessing ideas on their merits, they cling to the excuse that only a cure for poverty will cure the achievement gap and the dropout crisis.

No time to wait

Yet a new group of advocates for minority students called the Equity in Education Coalition is not accepting that defeatism. The students they care most about are in school right now and don't have time to wait for eradication of poverty in America. The coalition instead is supporting a combination of targeted social services and changes to how education is delivered to at-risk kids. Education reform remains popular among voters. So how did the Democratic party in Washington state give away leadership to its political rivals on such a vital policy issue?

For many Democrats, the personification of the evils of school reform is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Any reform idea that can be linked to Gates can be dismissed as part of a vast corporate conspiracy. (In doing so, Democrats also risk alienating high-technology leaders and businesses they often hold up as the future of America and raise campaign funds from.)

During his interview with Gates last week, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert asked if data were as important as passion in driving the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates said passion was more important but said data are needed to measure what is working and what is not. At that point, they were talking about the foundation's work to eradicate polio and improve children's health. But it could have applied to education reform, too. As he does so well, Colbert took a position he surely rejects as a way to demonstrate how foolish it sounds.

"Here's the problem I have with this … if you track the data, you see where you're doing well, you see where you don't do well, you know when you're getting better or worse," Colbert said. "Whereas if I keep no record of what I do, I can always assume I'm succeeding."

After the audience laughter faded, Gates said, "there was some of that in the past." And in Washington, there may be some of that in the future.