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Teachers Union Fights Democratic Legislators on Ed Bills

By Andrew Calkins February 1, 2011

The teachers union comes out against Democratic state Rep. Eric Pettigrew and Democratic state Sen. Rodney Tom on education bill.

State Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue) and Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37, S. Seattle) are pushing education reform legislation backed by the Excellent Schools Now coalition - which includes the Washington State PTA, the League of Education Voters, Washington Alliance of Black School Educators, and the Waiting for Superman crowd at Stand for Children—that would require the upcoming layoffs of 1,500 teachers to be made without regard to seniority and instead be determined by principal evaluations of teachers.

The bills haven’t received a public hearing yet, but already the state teachers union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), is lining up against the proposed reform legislation.

Rich Wood, spokesman for the WEA, spent yesterday in Olympia meeting with legislators. The group’s main complaint is that the bills don’t address the overarching problem: a lack of funding for K-12 education. The Pettigrew-Tom proposal would "undermine our current efforts to improve public education," Wood says.

As for what the bill does? The WEA doesn't approve.

Wood said that "SB 5399 and HB 1609 restrict local decision-making about teacher staffing and force all 295 school districts to follow the same general policy for layoffs and teacher job assignments, regardless of their local needs." He adds: "Most current contracts use teacher experience as a factor in staffing decisions, but qualifications and subject matter also are used," arguing that the new evaluation system would harm student learning.

The teachers union also has a secondary set of grounds for opposition.

Wood pointed out that the Pettigrew-Tom proposals would “undermine the good work that teachers are already doing” to develop new forms of teacher evaluations. Senate Bill 6696, passed during the 2010 session, set up pilot programs in 17 school districts across the state. Teachers support these current pilot programs, but oppose the Tom and Pettigrew proposals, Wood said because they would distract from last year's pilot program.

There's some irony here. Wood's WEA was actually forced to accept the pilot program last year rather than the alternative—revamping the whole evaluation system, as reformers like the PTA proposed. WEA opposition killed the evaluation reform, keeping the very one Wood's criticizning now, the principal evaluations, in place.  That decision hurt Washington State's application to get Race to the Top funding from the Obama administration.

The League Of Education Voters, a member of the Excellent Schools Now coalition, points out that the bill would not affect ongoing pilot projects.

Wood admitted the proposal would not directly interfere with the current projects, but called the proposals a “distraction” that amounts to a “one size fits all” policy that would “impose standard policy for many school district’s staffing decisions.”

Michele Miller, a teacher representative from the Bellevue School District, told PubliCola that her district had already formed a district-wide joint panel to develop a new evaluation system. Miller argued that the district's current project fostered collaboration between administrators and teachers. She said the Tom and Pettigrew proposals would halt collaboration in favor of an “all or nothing, high-stakes approach” to teacher evaluations.

Heather Cope, Senior Policy Analyst at the League of Education Voters, said there was nothing in the Pettigrew-Tom proposal that would interfere with the current pilot projects underway. Cope added that the new legislation would actually add "more credence" to these programs.

And since state law prevents a union contract from being overturned, Cope added that many of the upcoming layoffs would not actually be made with regard to principle evaluations. Nevertheless, the legislation "would give districts a tool to retain the most effective teachers" in future contract negotiations.

I have a call in to Seattle Rep. Pettigrew.
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