Opinion

PubliCola's 2011 Legislative Awards: Best Lobbyist

By Andrew Calkins May 31, 2011

Now that the session is finally over, PubliCola is rolling out our 2011 Legislative Session Awards. On Friday, we handed out this session’s MVPs and yesterday, we announced our award for best committee chairs. Stay tuned for “Best Legislation,” and, of course, our annual Eve Harrington Award.

Today ... the session's Best Lobbyist.

Best Lobbyist: The Washington Education Association

With a popular documentary, bipartisan support, financial backing, and their adversaries, the teachers' union, on the defensive, Arne Duncan-style education reformers appeared to have the momentum this legislative session. And they laid out their agenda from the outset, with bills co-sponsored by Reps. Eric Pettigrew (D-37, Seattle), Bruce Dammeier (R-25, Puyallup) and Laurie Jinkins (D-27, Tacoma) in the house and Sens. Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue), Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) and Curtis King (R-14, Yakima) in the senate, requiring school districts to make teacher layoffs based on principal evaluations, rather than purely on seniority.

They got an immediate reality check. At the first public hearing, the state teachers' union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), was out in force testifying against the reform bills (the line stretched out the door). Neither of those bills ever made it out of committee.

That scene was a sign of what was to come as the WEA lined up their forces to oppose bipartisan groups of legislators, including Tom again and ranking senate ways and means member Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-18, Ridgefield), who tried to push a similar education reform bills through the legislature later in the session. The WEA would have none of it.

The teachers' union, which represents 83,000 educators in the state, has been at odds with advocates who seek to change the standard compensation and seniority-based layoff systems. According to the most recent Public Disclosure Commission reports, the WEA spent $257,000 to fight against pay cuts and Obama-style reform bills, ranking the group as one of the top spenders this year. (In early May, public radio's Austin Jenkins tallied lobbying numbers for the first quarter. At that point, the WEA ranked sixth in total spending with $150,434.)

The WEA framed the debate with a straightforward argument that legislators weren't addressing the more pressing issue: huge class sizes and a drop in K-12 funding. WEA spokesman Rich Wood called the early reform attempts "distractions" that "undermine" the pilot projects passed in 2010 and already underway in schools districts across the state.

Before the session ended, Tom tried twice more to ram through ed reform bills. First he tried to pass a similar "reduction in force" bill and then hijacked otherwise uncontroversial education legislation to include a provision tying layoffs to evaluations. The WEA complained that they weren't even consulted on Tom's new legislation. That talking point proved successful (they even got backup from the League of Education Voters—typically stalwart advocates for Waiting for Superman-style reforms).

Despite the nationwide movement and broad coalition in the house and senate, the teachers' union held on tight to their pilot projects and fought back every attempt by reformers to tie teacher layoffs to evaluations.

In April, we did a ThinkTank on education reform and the teachers' union after Tom proposed his second bill. Today, the New York Times has its own Room For Debate on the issue.
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