The Myth of Democratic Resistance to K-12 Accountability

Guest columnist Brendan Williams, a former state representative from the 22nd District, argues that Democrats, not Republicans, are the real advocates for education reform.

By Brendan Williams February 12, 2013


Image via Shutterstock.

Peter Callaghan of the News Tribune, generally a solid columnist, recently penned a very silly column (subscription required), writing about Democrats: “The party that birthed the education reform movement in Washington state is now the anti-reform party.”

"It is difficult to find a Democrat in the legislature who hasn’t instead embraced the rhetoric that all school reform is a right-wing attempt to privatize schools," Callaghan writes.

There’s no substantiation for that claim. The last major education reform bill, in 2009, was sponsored by current House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-47). Its passage was spurred by a group of determined, precocious House Democratic freshmen, including my late friend Scott White of the 46th District. And it passed over the objections of the teachers' union, the Washington Education Association.In my case, I voted against the bill because I thought its promise of full education funding by 2018 was unrealistic.

To be sure, some Democrats—including myself—opposed this legislation. However, we did not do so out of unreasoning fealty to the teachers’ union, or because we thought the K-12 system was perfect. In my case, I voted against the bill because I thought its promise of full education funding by 2018 was unrealistic—and that a 2009 legislature lacking the courage of its convictions in funding its expectations could hardly expect a future legislature to be braver. Subsequent events have not proved me wrong.

Some of us were also frustrated that voter-passed K-12 measures—including class size reductions—were being ignored amid the onset of significant K-12 education cuts. In that context, it seemed imprudent to make additional promises.

Yet make no mistake: Education reform was a Democratic measure. In the Senate it passed 26-23 – 17 Republicans, plus wayward Democrat Tim Sheldon (D-35), were opposed. In the House it passed 67-31; I was among only 11 Democratic no votes.

In its January 2012 McCleary decision finding the legislature was failing to adequately fund K-12 education, the Washington Supreme Court was quite complimentary of Rep. Sullivan’s 2009 reform law. For example, it noted the law “laid the foundation for one of the best data systems in the country for studying the relationship between financial inputs and student achievement.” 

While the court criticized “massive cuts in the 2011-13 operating budget,” it characterized the 2009 reform law as “a promising reform program” and stated: “It would be a mistake to disregard that progress now and require the legislature to return to the drawing board.” Yet, just as I did in 2009, the court wants the legislature to show it the money: “This court cannot idly stand by as the legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform.”

On that front, it is only Democrats who are willing to consider revenue options for funding K-12 education. Republicans would apparently prefer to just cut programs like skilled nursing home care to fund education “first.” That’s both fiscally irresponsible and morally untenable. 

Senate Republicans have squandered the session so far waging wars on workers and reproductive rights; they did not even bother showing up for a McCleary task force vote.

Further, as Senator Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat, recently noted, the Senate Republican education lead, Steve Litzow (R-41) simply copied into a bill of his own reform ideas introduced by Senator Christine Rolfes, a Bainbridge Island Democrat.  As PubliCola quoted Billig: “One way to perpetuate the myth [that Democrats aren't the party of reform] is to not allow Democratic reform and funding bills to come up for a vote.”

All of this makes risible Callaghan’s claim that “[a]n issue that combined good policy with good politics has now been ceded by Democrats to Republicans.” 

Hard though it may be for some to believe, it is possible to reform education (if not keep adopting reforms for the sake of reform, further exacerbating the Washington Supreme Court’s critique), and sustain it, while honoring teachers and not laying siege to their union.  Democrats are at least trying to do that. What have Republicans done?

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