This Washington

Dissident Teachers' Union Member Testifies in Favor of Doomed Teacher Evaluation Bill

By Andrew Calkins February 16, 2011

The Excellent Schools Now coalition and the Washington Education Association (the state’s teachers' union) squared off at yesterday’s public hearing on Rep. Eric Pettigrew’s (D-37, S. Seattle) legislation to allow school districts to make layoff decisions based on principal evaluations rather than seniority. (Budget cuts mean hundreds of teachers are likely to be laid off next year.) The house education committee hearing was packed full of sticker-clad teachers ("Teacher Opposing HB 1609") and sticker-clad  bill supporters ("Great Schools").

Those on the WEA side, testifying against the legislation—including teachers, administrators, principals, and lobbyists—argued that the state isn’t equipped to make layoff decisions using the four-tiered teacher evaluation system. The bill was called a "distraction" to current pilot projects that are underway to amp up the evaluation system.

Gary Kipp, President of the Association of Washington State Principals (AWSP), told the committee “our evaluation system isn’t sophisticated enough” and asked that they wait until the pilot projects are completed before adding an evaluation system. “Give us more time" was the recurring theme from opponents.

Footnote: The pilot projects in eight school districts expand teacher evaluations, tying them to student performance. Ironically, while reformers pushed to make that change system wide (as opposed to isolated pilots) last year, the teachers union opposed a system wide change to student achievement-related evaluations. PubliCola has repeatedly asked the union this year if they've changed their position and support it now. While they've never given us a straight answer, we did ask Becky Feuntes, a teacher and union member who attended yesterday's hearing to oppose this year's bill, whether she thinks the pilot projects should eventually be expanded and used for layoff decisions. She said only that having "experience in schools" (older teachers) was crucial to maintain a balance of old and new.

Reform advocates say the union is throwing up excuses. In fact, one person at yesterday's hearing challenging the union was a disgruntled unionized teacher—Chris Eide, a Beacon Hill teacher and representative of a new group called Teachers United. He told legislators that the WEA opposition arguments were “just excuses to protect under-performing teachers” adding that he was “embarrassed” that his own union would deploy such tactics.

Eide told PubliCola that his dissident group was a Seattle-based organization of unionized teachers whose views don’t jibe with the WEA. “As a teacher, to have all these excuses made is embarrassing,” he said. Eide—five years in to his teaching career and unlikely to be laid off anyway—explained that the current system isn’t working when “only one to two percent of teachers are ranked unsatisfactory.”

Eide's group is a member of the Excellent Schools Now coalition which includes the main backers of Pettigrew's bill—the League of Education Voters, the Washington Alliance of Black School Educators, Washington State PTA, and Stand for Children, the zealous reform group that's also promoting the anti-teachers' union film, Waiting for Superman.

Like every policy issue this year, there is an overarching concern: Opponents of Pettigrew’s bill are quick to point out a major problem—a lack of funding. WEA member Fuentes told us out in the hallway after the hearing that teachers “cannot be effective with thirty-plus students in your class.”

Even though they believed they had the votes for a compromise version—one that wouldn't use the entire four-tier evaluation system over seniority, but rather prioritize only one category (teachers with "unsatisfactory" ratings) before going with seniority—proponents of the legislation are not optimistic. They say committee chair, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37, S. Seattle), will not allow a vote on the legislation because Democratic leadership simply isn't interested in the bill.

Cutoff for house policy bills to get out of committee is tomorrow and state Rep. Tim Probst's (D-15, Vancouver) compromise amendments stalled earlier in the week according to supporters of the bill. "It's dead," League of Education lobbyist George Scarola tells PubliCola this afternoon. As we noted this morning’s Fizz—signals from senate Democratic leadership indicate the bill is DOA.

Packed education committee hearing in Olympia yesterday

While the Excellent Schools Now group and and educators fight over Pettigrew's legislation took center stage, the committee also heard testimony on another bill also meant to shake up the status quo in public schools. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Reuven Carlyle’s (D-36, Queen Anne, Ballard), also a cosponsor on Pettigrew's bill—would establish a provisional principal certification program to create an alternate path for prospective principals. The idea is to remove barriers to becoming a principal to attract a wider swath of candidates with managerial and disciplinary skills. Get those ex-Microsoft managers in there.

Carlyle’s legislation seems more likely to get a shot at a committee vote—though the WEA is opposed to this bill as well. They say it would have a negative impact on teacher effectiveness, and thus on student achievement.

Lucinda Young, a WEA lobbyist, told legislators that “principals cannot be successful if they do not have experiences in teaching practice, if they have not demonstrated their own instructional competencies, and if they don’t have the ability to recognize specific pedagogical practices.”

Association of Washington School Principals lobbyist Jerry Bender told the committee that Carlyle’s bill requires “no education requirements [for a principal] to lead an education enterprise, not even a high school diploma.”

"I recognize there is a deep reservation about people from the outside entering a subculture," Carlyle said. But added: "At a time when we are having higher and higher standards for students in terms of tests in terms of expectations ... I believe we have a public responsibility to demand that same level of accountability for the leadership of our buildings." Carlyle said his bill would give schools "a much deeper and much richer" pool of leaders.
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