Yesterday, Washington Education Association teachers' union president Mary Lindquist wrote an open letter to PubliCola criticizing major Democratic donor Nick Hanauer for an email Hanauer wrote denouncing the Democrats' position on ed reform. (In the email, Hanauer also announced that he planned to meet with Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna.)

Today, we've got Hanauer's response to Lindquist.

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your recent open letter to me and PubliCola. It will not surprise you to hear that I disagreed with some of it.[pullquote]Can you seriously argue that the kids and families in South Seattle don’t deserve better educational opportunities?[/pullquote]

As a lifelong Democrat and committed progressive, I too believe that McKenna’s reflexive Republican positions on social issues, taxation, and the role of government are deeply misguided.

But if McKenna and Republicans are wrong in some areas, it hardly excuses us Democrats from being wrong on school reform. Here at least, McKenna is on the right track, and we are not.

Looking at the student achievement data, it’s absurd to assert that our public school system in Washington is sufficiently innovative or accountable. We may be headed in the right direction, but we aren’t in the right lane.

Other states that have aggressively tackled education reform are closing their achievement gaps. Meanwhile, while we resist meaningful accountability and innovation, our achievement gaps are widening.

It is my belief that the vast majority of Washington’s teachers care deeply about student outcomes, work incredibly hard, and are constantly working to improve their instructional practices. It is not classroom teachers who are afraid of change and innovation—it is their union.

I am not a teacher and would not presume to tell you how to teach. But in my experience as a business leader and entrepreneur, I have observed that all high-performance organizations share elements that are largely missing from our State’s public education system: relentlessly high standards, a culture of excellence, and a systemic commitment to innovation.

We have many great schools and excellent teachers in Washington. But we lack a coherent system that consistently delivers a high-quality education for all of our students—particularly our low-income students and students of color. As a result, signs of excellence are temporary: a consequence of the heroic efforts of individuals rather than the inevitable outcome of an organization built to deliver excellence all the time.

Great organizations recognize and encourage excellence. Those who are either unable or unwilling to do their jobs well are moved out quickly and are replaced by those who do. The alternative is a culture in which outstanding performance is resented or even discouraged, mediocrity is accepted, and low performance is tolerated.

Our educational strategies are fragmented. Our state lurches towards high standards, and then we have to fight back efforts to water them down. Case in point: The WEA supported a bill this session that would have weakened our high school graduation requirements.

No organism or entity can long survive if it cannot adapt to changing circumstances and challenges. Indeed, the hallmark of high performing organizations is a culture where innovation isn’t just tolerated; it is required and rewarded. And any organization that is not constantly changing is dying.

Our schools are the antithesis of this. Where innovation is found, it is the result of heroism, not organizational intent. Where change happens, it is slow if at all, and is fought at every turn, usually by the teacher’s union.

The WEA can usually be counted on to resist change in most forms. Your organization has consistently defended the absurd “Last In First Out” seniority-based layoff policies. The WEA has resisted a requirement that student growth data be used in evaluations. The WEA has resisted including teacher evaluations in management decisions.[pullquote]In my experience as a business leader and entrepreneur, I have observed that all high-performance organizations share elements that are largely missing from our State’s public education system: relentlessly high standards, a culture of excellence, and a systemic commitment to innovation.[/pullquote]

Thanks to leadership from Gov. Chris Gregoire, these provisions (that you fought two years ago when we submitted our Race to the Top application) have just been handed to you in the form of SB 5895. In testimony opposing this bill on Feb. 16th, the president of the Seattle Education Association said that students are not equipped to give feedback about teachers because some of them carry guns.

As I write, the new Seattle School Board—which WEA money championed—appears to be in the process of terminating the contract with Teach For America, a nationally acclaimed program that brings a very diverse group of the nation’s most talented college graduates to teach in low performing schools. This sort of behavior is irrational, self-destructive, and it undermines the cause that unions work to further.

12,000 students attend our South Seattle public schools. Where is the outrage about this state of affairs?

•4 out of 10 South Seattle 3rd graders meet reading standards

•2 out of 10 South Seattle black 4th graders meet math standards

•1 out 10 South Seattle black 5th graders meet science standards

•60% of South Seattle’s high school graduates need remediation when they get to community college.

Where standards are high, instruction is consistently great, and the supports are in place, poor kids are fully capable of achieving at high levels. We as a community bear responsibility for our under-performing schools: not only the parents and educators but also the politicians who create the laws that govern how we educate our children. And since in Washington State the majority of those politicians are Democrats, as a Democrat I think it is time for self-reflection. These abysmal results are difficult to frame in any other way other than abject failure. Defending the status quo that produced that failure is shameful.

This is really a moment of truth for education reform among progressives. Public schools are generally the most sustained, intimate experience people have of government, and that experience is way too often poisoned: not by teachers, but by the bureaucracy placed on educators.

Charter Schools

Public charter schools are yet another tool at our disposal for innovation and a way to put pressure on the larger institution to adapt and change. If we had real innovation in our public schools, then there might not be the need and demand for charter schools that exists today.

Business people have long had a name for this: “competing with yourself.” The best organizations do it because they know if they don’t, others will. Public charter schools are one way of doing that.

Public charter schools are not a panacea for fixing public education. But the good charter schools are successfully closing achievement gaps because that is what they are designed to do. These charter schools provide proof points that very poor kids can indeed achieve at extremely high levels. And they are enormously popular with parents.

And while it is true that many charter schools do not deliver better results than comparable public schools, it is also true that high quality charter schools run by experienced and excellent operators, like KIPP, kick the crap out of chronically low performing public schools.

It is also a fact that no urban district in the USA has closed its achievement gaps without public charter schools. Our state’s Democratic party leaders missed the memo that President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, the national Democratic party platform, the NEA, and the AFT all support charter schools.

You point out, correctly, that Washington voters have turned down charter schools three times. But please be honest and admit that the WEA spent massive amounts of money and organizing capital to secure these electoral defeats. In fact, in 2004 the Democratically controlled legislature passed a decent charter school bill, but the WEA could not stand that result. So you bankrolled an expensive referendum and vigorous No campaign. In a state where Eyman’s idiotic initiatives regularly garner impressive majorities, it’s clear that smart public policy isn’t always written at the ballot box.

The charter school bill that education reformers pushed this session (that the WEA and the Democratic leadership killed) was one that would have attracted high quality charter schools—the ones with an enviable record with low-income and minority kids. Can you seriously argue that the kids and families in South Seattle don’t deserve better educational opportunities?

My record as a proponent of more funding for our public schools is unassailable. I continue to believe that our public schools are grossly underfunded. But we need to invest in a system that recognizes and encourages excellence.

I have gotten lots of feedback from my recent letter and the overwhelming amount of it has been positive, particularly from public school parents. Many teachers disagree and argue that because I am not a teacher, I just don’t understand. But I have also heard from young, frustrated teachers who want to go further and faster for their students. They want to teach in a system where the needs of students—not adults—are prioritized. They want to move into the fast lane.

Washington public schools are not delivering the kind of results that families in this state deserve and our economy requires. The WEA’s efforts to stop any of the changes needed to transform our system puts you and the politicians who support and enable this intransigence on the wrong side of kids, families and history. I urge you to change course. You can be sure that I and other committed Democrats are urging the elected officials in our party to do so, with or without you.

Wealthy citizens who argue that a successful democracy is possible without them paying their fair share of taxes are self-serving and misguided. You and I will always be on the same side in our fight for equitable taxation and adequate funding for education.

But a teachers union that argues that public schools don’t need to change, that teachers should not be held accountable for student achievement, and that there is no room for competitive pressure in the education system is equally misguided and self-serving.

I hope you will consider that.


Nick Hanauer

Editor's note: The bill that Hanauer refers to "that would have weakened our high school graduation requirements" was house bill 2411, a failed attempt to scale back the "core 24" redefinition of basic education that reformers passed in 2009. The "Core 24" bill was cited in the recent big deal Washington State Supreme Court Decision as the guideline for adequately funding K-12. The WEA worked against that legislation, but has embraced the court ruling. 
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