This post has been updated with comments from Council Member Burgess.

The City Council, which doesn't officially have any say over Seattle Public Schools, may be getting sucked into the testy battle about education reform which is rattling other cities around the country. This morning, the Our Schools Coalition, an education reform group that's trying to impact the ongoing Seattle School District negotiations with the Seattle Education Association, the local union, testified at City Hall.

OSC's plan comes in response to this year's education reform bill which pushed the thorny debate over teacher evaluation (a top priority for reformers) down to the local level. The WEA, the statewide union, managed to kill amendments for uniform statewide evaluations, arguing that "one-size does not fit all."

So now, the Our Schools Coalition, which includes reformers like the League of Education Voters who tried to push uniform standards in Olympia this session, are taking the union at its word and fighting for changes that fit locally.

This morning they presented their goals to the Seattle City Council's education committee, which is chaired by Tim Burgess, who took the unusual step of endorsing the group earlier this month. (I say unusual because not many elected officials in Seattle are willing to lend their names to a group that is at odds with the teachers union.)

Sara Morris, president and CEO of the non-profit Alliance for Education (members of OSC) presented polling data showing that parents supported their push for strong teacher evaluations. She also noted that teachers were not entirely supportive of their goals to tie teacher evaluations to student performance nor the coalition's idea to move away from seniority-based merit pay.

Afterward, Burgess said: "It is gratifying to see groups like yours coming around to support ... better education." He also—unrelated to any question on the table— complimented the teachers' union and mentioned that the Council was working closely with SEA.  "The teachers' union has a very important role [in this discussion]," he said. "We want them at the table. They have the same goal [as the OSC and other education groups]--to improve education in a
collaborative way."

"This is good work," he finished. The rest of the committee members were quiet and noncomittal.

I talked to the SEA about OSC earlier this month.


I just talked to Council Member Burgess, who told me he didn't invite the Our Schools Coalition to talk about the contract negotiations, but to discuss community sentiments broadly, as the Public Safety and Education Committee wrapped debate on the current proposed Family and Education Levy (which Burgess' committee sent to the council for a vote earlier in the meeting).

Burgess tells me he brought up the teachers union after Morris' presentation because he wanted to note that while teachers had been critical of some of the Our Schools Coalition's proposals, the union had themselves been active in working on reform measures. (While the union did stall teacher evaluation reforms at the state level, they signed off on other reforms, like a four-tiered eval system, alternative paths to teaching certificates, and reforming failing schools.)

Burgess sees the teachers' union and the Our Schools Coalition, which have a fundamental ideological disagreement on at least a couple of issues on the forthcoming teacher contract, including moving off merit pay based on seniority and tying teacher evaluations to student performance, as two players in a larger conversation on education reform, and doesn't see the Our Schools Coalition's proposals as a conflict between citizens and the teachers' union. I mentioned that the teacher's union had seemed to think otherwise (I've got a call in to SEA president Olga Addae to get her take on today's meeting). "Some might see this as a wedge," Burgess responded. "I don't see it as a wedge."

Burgess said he thinks the Coalition's main goal is not to influence the teachers' union negotiations, but to bring another level of community networking into the conversation on education reform in Seattle.

OSC's homepage, on the other hand, doesn't mention anything except the contract negotiations. When I asked what Burgess thought about OSC's role in the negotiations, Burgess said, "that was not our discussion today" and that the committee had heard Morris' presentation "as part of our work on education reform"--although, Morris' presentation consisted entirely of feedback her group had received on proposals the OSC is presenting to the teachers union and the school district.