Democratic Rep. Eric Pettigrew calls for charter schools

A bipartisan crew of state legislators led by Democratic state Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37, Madrona, S. Seattle, Renton) and state Sen. Steve Litzow (R-41, Mercer Island) introduced a package of education reform bills yesterday; one bill would authorize nonprofits to form charter schools, with a focus on low-performing districts (teachers at charters could join unions); another would authorize the state to take over under-performing schools; and the third would take a teacher evaluation pilot project statewide to all 295 school districts starting in the 2013-14 school year.

The new evaluation system would rate teachers on a range of metrics, including improvements in student achievement—and formally tie teacher tenure, placement, and contracts (and hiring and firing) to those evaluations.

There is a pilot evaluation program in place based on an education reform bill passed two years ago that uses a new four-tiered ranking process, and it's set to go statewide in 2013-14 as well, but it doesn't yet mandate the specifics as Pettigrew and Litzow's bill does, such as: "Student growth data, based on multiple measures, must be included as a significant factor in the evaluation."

It also specifies that any union contract or school board policy "must contain provisions that require consideration of the results of performance evaluations before other factors such as seniority may be considered,"

The Washington Education Association, the teachers' union, opposes the bills.

The evaluation bill says non-provisional (non-tenured) teachers must get high ratings for three years during a five-year span to get tenure. And tenured teachers can be put back on provisional status if they subsequently get consecutive poor ratings. Additionally, placement of teachers in particular schools must include the "mutual agreement" between the superintendent, teacher, and principal.[pullquote]"I see these kids every single day. I see their mothers and grandmothers in the grocery store saying 'give us an opportunity, help me.' And this is the opportunity to do that."—Rep. Eric Pettigrew[/pullquote]

The charter bill is the most controversial piece of the package. Voters rejected charter school initiatives in 1996 and 2000. And in 2004, voters rejected charter legislation that the legislature passed.  Gov. Chris Gregoire, even as she proposed a similar teacher evaluation bill in December, told PubliCola she does not support charters.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36, Queen Anne, Ballard, and Magnolia), a key member of the "ed reform" contingent in the house, was the only one of Pettigrew's Seattle colleagues to stand with him yesterday, saying he "respect[s] Eric's passion and conviction" and is signing on to Pettigrew's evaluation bill. "He has more than five failing schools in his district, and when the only African American in this body asks you to stand with him on this, I'm going to be there to support him."

Five of the "persistently lowest performing schools" according the state schools superintendent, are in Pettigrew's district or serve his constituents, including Rainier Beach High School.

However, even Carlyle is not signing on to the charter bill. Carlyle says he thinks it's too divisive "at a time when we need a united front to deal with the financial implosion in education funding."

Pettigrew was well aware that he was bringing up a hot button issue. "A lot of people hear 'charter schools' and their heads bust up," Pettigrew said defiantly yesterday, flanked by parents, minority education advocates such as Kevin Washington with the Black Education Strategy Roundtable, a handful of co-sponsors, and representatives from Microsoft, which supports the bill.

Pettigrew is not on the education committee and his proposal reportedly irked education chair Sharon Tomiko Santos, Pettigrew's 37th District seatmate. The 37th District Democrats, in fact, voted 22-2 in favor of a resolution opposing charters earlier this week.

"It is hard to be here bucking against the system the way it's always been done. But when it's done for the right reason, when it's done for kids and the most vulnerable ... when it's our obligation as leaders to make sure every single child has an opportunity to succeed, it's well worth the fight, the struggle," Pettigrew said. "It's an honest dialogue about how we can help these kids, not in the future, but right now so they don't have to end their lives in Monroe prison or on our coffers."

"I see these kids every single day. I see their mothers and grandmothers in the grocery store saying 'give us an opportunity, help me.' And this is the opportunity to do that."

"The public will not continue to accept business as usual when for African American and Latino students in our state the chances of graduating high school are no better than flipping a coin," said Shannon Campion, Executive Director of Stand for Children, an Arne Duncan-style education reform group that supports the package of bills. "The time has come to make meaningful changes so our system meets the needs of all kids."

The union objects to the bills for several reasons. For starters, Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood says teachers weren't even at the table helping to craft this bill. "Wouldn't you want the practitioners helping to inform changes as dramatic as this instead of forcing it down our throats?"

Specifically, Wood says layoff decisions shouldn't be tied to evaluations. "That's a separate issue. Now, all of a sudden,  the evaluation system that's supposed to make teachers better puts teachers in competition for a position."

The union supports the existing pilot project, which also establishes a more nuanced evaluation rating system with more possible rankings than the current two-tiered system. And it can use student achievement data in evaluations. But Wood calls the supporters of the bill are "misguided" because the evaluation system is designed, he says, as a carrot to use student data to make teachers better---not as a stick for layoffs.

He also says the details of teacher evaluations within the new four-tier structure should be hashed out at the district level, not a one-size fits all level. "On the one hand, with the charters bill, they're saying they want to tailor schools to special needs, but on the other, with the evaluations, they want a one-size fits all model."

After Pettigrew's press conference, Pam Kruse, a 5th grade teacher in South Tacoma at Collins Elementary, a high-poverty school, said, "I am disgusted by everything I heard today." Challenging the one-size-fits-all evaluation model, Kruse asks, "Are you going to tell me I'm failing because 14 of my kids didn't meet the reading standard? No, that means I work harder with those 14 kids."



5th grade teacher Pam Kruse

As for charters, Kruse said: "Everything they said about innovative schools—are they saying I'm not innovative? They talk about fully funding education, yet they [also] talk about taking money away from my kids. I don't have enough desks. Why are we taking money away and giving it to something else. Give us the money we need to do our jobs."

As for the critique that schools are failing, Kruse said: "Fund public education. Pure and simple. Put the money where we need it. Allow us to have small class sizes."

Black Education Strategy Roundtable steering team member Kevin Washington, who also took the mike during Pettigrew's press conference, flatly disagreed: "As a taxpayer, I'd love to be able to throw more money at teachers, [but] that alone is not the issue." He said the proposals put the guidelines in place, "so that [teachers] can do the job that the entire community expects from [them]."

The seemingly intractable divide was best captured when state Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue), another Pettigrew reform ally, addressed the issue of putting the charter question to another public vote  to see if voters had changed their minds and agreed with legislators now. Tom said education was too important to subject to a plebiscite. "Our Supreme Court was very clear. Education is the paramount duty of the state, and it's high time that we take care of that here in Olympia," he said. "I don't think education is one of those things we take a gamble with."

The statement drew sustained applause from the crowd around him who supported charters.