This Washington

McKenna Hangs Out with Teachers' Union Rivals During Scheduled Endorsement Interview

By Josh Feit December 5, 2011

The symbolism seemed clear. Predicting Saturday's endorsement interview would be a "dog and pony" "spectacle" for his Democratic opponent Jay Inslee, gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna bailed on the Washington Education Association (the teachers' union) sitdown and spent the morning with the Excellent Schools Now coalition instead.[pullquote] Excellent Schools Now is a coalition of groups that includes some of the WEA's biggest adversaries in Olympia who advocate for education reforms.[/pullquote]

McKenna was scheduled to meet with the WEA at 11am, Inslee was scheduled for 1:30, and the union was scheduled to make its endorsement at 3:30, which they did. No surprise, the WEA went with Inslee. (The National Education Association, the WEA's parent organization, is one of Inslee's all-time top ten donors and McKenna's education campaign agenda reads like a page out Obama's education secretary Arne Duncan's reform playbook, which is anathema to the unions and includes things such as charter schools.)

The symbolism of McKenna's choice to hang with ESN on Saturday morning? ESN is a coalition of groups that includes some of the WEA's biggest adversaries in Olympia—groups such as Stand for Children, the League of Education Voters, the state CEO group the Washington Roundtable, the Washington Technology Industry Association, and the Black Education Strategy Roundtable, which advocate for education reforms along the Duncan lines that the union has fought against in the legislature: tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and prioritizing evaluations over seniority when deciding to make layoffs.

The 25 to 30 coalition members on hand at the 2100 Building auditorium space in South Seattle where ESN was meeting at 9:00 am on Saturday were "surprised" to see McKenna. "No, we didn't know he was going to be there," says Chris Korsmo, the director of the League of Education Voters. "We learned about it about five minutes before."[pullquote]“Instead of meeting with the people who actually work with students every day, Rob McKenna chose to seek guidance from a group of people who aren’t in the classroom."—WEA President Mary Lindquist[/pullquote]

McKenna was informally invited to the meeting by an LEV board member (and a McKenna supporter, Korsmo says) who sent him an announcement of the group's quarterly meeting. McKenna sat in the back, "participating in the conversation," but not making any speeches, according to Korsmo. Nor, she says, did he mention the union. She said McKenna mostly raised good questions about "how to go about implementing" teacher evaluation reform.

The meeting focused on the group's 2012 legislative agenda, which includes "an educator evaluation system that incorporates multiple measures of student growth, and a robust evaluation system to determine critical staffing decisions," as well as finding funding for the reform legislation that passed two years ago (which the union opposed).

WEA leader Mary Lindquist tells me: “Instead of meeting with the people who actually work with students every day -- teachers, librarians, counselors and support professionals -- Rob McKenna chose to seek guidance from a group of people who aren’t in the classroom .... We genuinely wanted to hear what Mr. McKenna had to say about public education. We wanted him to hear from educators. His decision to forsake teachers is highly symbolic – we need a governor who respects teachers, and who brings everyone together to address the challenges schools face, even if we don’t always agree on how to do that.”

McKenna campaign manager Randy Pepple tells us McKenna's attendance was not intended to be symbolic, explaining that McKenna planned to go to both meetings, but once his campaign began to see the WEA meeting as "a coronation for congressman Inslee," they decided Friday afternoon that they would stay an extra hour at the ESN meeting with people "whose ideas on education reform he finds more compelling."

Korsmo was clear that ESN has not endorsed McKenna (the group does not make endorsements) and said the group had been meeting with both Inslee and McKenna over the last several months to talk about education. She said McKenna has "some very good thoughts on how to change the current system," but also said his funding plan of relying on future revenue to fund reforms was impractical.

"Jay has great ideas on funding," she said, referring to Inslee's idea to cut the state's number one cost driver,  health care costs, by finding efficiencies and putting the savings toward education.

Korsmo's LEV does make endorsements. They won't be endorsing in the governor's race until next year, but their 2010 legislative endorsements included nods to some of the WEA's biggest rivals, including reform leaders like state Sens. Steve Hobbs (D-44)  and Rodney Tom (D-48) and state Reps. Reuven Carlyle (D-36) and Cathy Dahlquist (R-31).

Tom pushed a bill late last year that would have prioritized emergency layoffs based on teacher evaluations instead of seniority. Inslee told PubliCola he did not support that bill while McKenna singled it out in his campaign kickoff speech as a bill he supported. (The bill failed.) Carlyle fought for  a bill that would allow alternative certification for high school principals. That bill got killed, he said, by the "ferocious educational industrial complex" which included the WEA.
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