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Washington State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz speaks up on ed reform

To follow is an open letter from Washington State’s Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz:

A Democrat For Education

Count me as a Democrat opposed to the most strident elements of so-called Education Reform. Let me be clear that I am not opposed to high standards, high achievement, or accountability. What I reject is the culture of scapegoating teachers for the failures of society to protect families and kids, the hypocrisy of defunding schools while corporations bank record profits, and the focus on the latest fads instead of long term, structural improvements.

MY WIFE THE TEACHER

First, let me point out that my wife is a teacher. She leaves the house every morning at 5:30 and comes home around 4:30. She works every Saturday. She teaches in an alternative Seattle Public High School, with two teachers and 50 students. Three years ago they had three teachers, but with budget cutbacks, her class size is now much higher.

My wife saves lives. She is a nationally recognized teacher. Her students are a wonderful mix of kids who have left the traditional high schools. Many have tough home lives, learning disabilities, jobs, and/or substance abuse issues. She nurtures them to graduation – for many their greatest success in a difficult life. (For some of these kids, graduation is the first time their parents have attended a school event.) For some graduation will be the sole success they might have for some time, as they go out into a world of limited job opportunities and unaffordable college.

Some recently adopted reforms limit my wife’s creative teaching to inflexible standards and inflexible curricula, as she focuses on the tests which will now measure her students, and purportedly measure her effectiveness as a teacher. This “accountability” means more paperwork, so that my wife can document her children’s success and her performance. A major part of her time is now committed to data collection, test preparation, and test taking, which means less time for teaching. Since teaching is really her job, some have chosen to increase her accountability but reduce her productivity.

She is expected to deliver higher test scores at the same time the Legislature delivers less support to our schools. My wife is facing a classic “industrial speed-up” at work due to the reduction in school budgets. The Seattle School District is doing its best, but forced to make tough budget decisions. In addition to a 50% increase in her class size, she has fewer support services such as counseling or health services for the students. School lunch has been reduced, so some of the kids are hungry during the day, and bus passes have been reduced, so attendance becomes more sporadic.

My wife is expected to achieve more each year in terms of student achievement. We don’t hold Congress, corporations, the Legislature, or parents accountable for supporting student achievement – just teachers. Many Ed Reformers would have us believe that the weak link in public education is the teachers – those adults who have committed their careers to their students.

There are clearly teachers who should not be in a classroom–most teachers will tell you there are weak links in their schools in need of professional development, mentoring, or outright removal. The current evaluation bill–a compromise that only proves the point that Democrats can and do lead collaboratively on reform measures–is a good step forward, assuming funding is available to make it work.

HB 1209 – THE WASL

My other vantage point is that in 1993 I was Chair of the Senate Education Committee, and current Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn was Chair of the House Education Committee. Together we wrote HB 1209, the Last Great Education Reform Bill, the one which created the WASL.

I was, as many are today, a legislator with ZERO understanding of the classroom who was challenged to reform public education. Kerry Killinger would lecture us on how to run the schools like a business. (Perhaps we were supposed to securitize the kids and sell their education futures on a secondary market?) I remember one business leader who sat in my office, looked me coldly in the eye and asked, “Do you have the courage to change public education?”.

The problem is that it does not take courage so much as knowledge and humility for a Legislature to change public education. I now know that too many of today’s “reforms” are short term fads, fueled by poorly understood clichés, supported by well-meaning individuals, intent on revolutionizing our education system, at no additional cost.

In 1993 we said that not every child should attend college. This year every child should be college ready.

In 1993 we acknowledged that poverty and hunger influenced child learning and promised a package of wrap around social services for at-risk students. This year citing poverty is cynically considered an excuse put forward by poor teachers.

Critics dismiss a child’s race or poverty background with the cliché “nothing influences a child’s learning within the confines of a school more than his or her teacher and principal”. In other words, great teachers can transform children with tough home lives, learning disabilities, jobs, and/or substance abuse issues. If the child falls asleep during class because her alcoholic parents are fighting each night, the teacher will be fired if the child does not show academic progress.

As a nation we have abandoned the fight against poverty, but some would promise that all poor children can go to Harvard if they just have a great teacher.

In the 90’s, one prominent ed reform fad was to have higher standards for teachers: “Science teachers should have science degrees.” We told teachers to get Masters Degrees and advance credits, but then Bill Gates decreed in 2010 that master’s degrees are unrelated to teachers’ ability to teach. Gates says class size does not affect student learning – my wife does not agree.

Congress loves fads, and passed the bi-partisan No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and decreed, incredulously, that by 2014 every child would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. This led one observer to say, “The United States Congress, acting with large bipartisan majorities, at the urging of the President, enacted as the law of the land that all children are to be above average.” President Obama just granted ten states waivers from these requirements, calling NCLB an admirable but flawed effort that hurt students instead of helping them.

Ed Reform is like the weather, if you hang around, it will change. A teacher with a 30 year career will find the Legislature coming around every eight or ten years knocking on the classroom door, saying the teacher does not understand teaching, and that they have to follow the latest edicts. Senator Dwight Pelz did it in 1993. Shame on Senator Pelz for his hubris.

REPUBLICANS LOVE ED REFORM–BUT FOR THE WRONG REASONS

In the ’60’s when I was in high school America had the strongest middle class and the greatest public education system in the world — K-12 and higher ed. Americans loved their schools, took pride in their government, and the ultra-wealthy paid their fair share in taxes.

In 1980 Reagan said in his Inaugural Speech, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Grover Nordquist famously said in 2001, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Republicans understood that a government the public mistrusted was a government that did not deserve their taxes. Reagan said that the best way to control the government was to starve it. Over the past 30 years Republicans have been attacking government at all levels, and slashing taxes in America, with the benefit accruing to the top one percent.

The assault on public education is a corollary to the Republican assault on the government. Schools that you do not trust do not deserve your taxes. Schools do not need more funding, they need reform, or they need to be privatized as Charter Schools, dissolved into voucher subsidies for religious schools, or abandoned as simply failing. This narrative plays perfectly for Grover Nordquist, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, John Boehner, and Rob McKenna.

Recently, Republican Senator Steve Litzow and Democratic House member Eric Pettigrew signed onto a formulaic op-ed in the Seattle Times that unfortunately reinforces the Republican narrative that schools can be improved with no increase in funding.

“Without breaking the bank, can the Legislature do anything during its 60-day session to move toward the world-class K-12 system. . . ”

“A pair of bipartisan bills filed last week would, at relatively little cost, help state government comply with its constitutional mandate to “make ample provision” for basic education — which includes but is not limited to funding.”

“Senate Bill 6203 recognizes that, and would cost taxpayers nothing while offering a return that is incalculable.”

“SB6203. . . . should lead to a great teacher in every classroom. . ” (If every teacher is great, then what does “great” mean?)

Democrats support efficient, accountable government and the services that maintain and enhance our communities. We support higher taxes on wealthy families and corporations, we support funding education, we support teachers, we support unions, and we think that it is our society that is failing low income and minority students, not their teachers. A fair discussion about education in America — which many Democrats in Olympia and Washington, DC are helping lead– will make long term progress by holding Congress, corporations, the state legislatures, and maybe even parents accountable for supporting student achievement – not just teachers.

THE TRUE CRISIS FACING EDUCATION IN AMERICA

I beseech the Ed Reformers to turn their focus from short term, and largely unproven “fixes” like charter schools and merit pay to join Democrats at all levels willing to address the true crisis facing public education in America: In a global economy, the United States has no national commitment to fund quality education.

While China and India and other competitors are investing massively in their education systems, the United States is openly allowing our schools to deteriorate. We had the world’s best education system in the 30 years after the War, when ironically we did not need it as much as we do in today’s highly competitive global economy.

We need a federal policy that guarantees that education funding maintains and grows despite economic cycles. Today the 50 states fund K-12 and their public universities. Thankfully state governments cannot borrow money. Congress can. If we are to have a national commitment to quality education we need to hold Congress accountable for a federal policy to fund education in America, particularly during a recession. Rick Santorum said in the Arizona debate “I believe the federal government should get out of the education business. . . and put it back to the state.” Education must not be a local issue, but rather one of our highest national priorities.

Republicans oppose this, because lower taxes for wealthy people are more important to them than quality schools and universities. In 2010 Barack Obama and Patty Murray led the effort to appropriate stimulus money to backfill state revenues for teachers and classrooms. Republicans opposed it in 2010 and stopped it in 2011.

A national commitment to funding quality education will not receive bi-partisan support. Republicans, corporations, and well heeled lobbyists will support education reform if it does not require higher taxes and if it accelerates attacks on the teachers union. Until we expand the definition of true education reform to include a financial commitment to strong schools and universities nationwide, in good times and bad, then Democrats will have to go it alone.

You can contact Dwight Pelz at chair@wa-democrats.org.

7 comments on “Washington State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz speaks up on ed reform

  1. Anonymous
    February 29, 2012

    Well stated! I just hope the right eyes and ears see and hear it. Tamara Kittredge
    (27 yrs. teaching in the Highline School Distict).

  2. seattleducation2011
    February 27, 2012

    Here’s what PAA parent Demian Godon sent to Chairman Pelz:

    Chairman Pelz,

    Thank you for sticking up against the arrogant and entitled attacks
    from Nick Hanauer and the Seattle Times in your open letter
    (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/politicsnorthwest/2017598267_dwight_pelz_ed_reform_is_like.html)

    While there is always room for healthy debate, these attacks and the
    framing of this as a major division in the Democratic Party is clearly
    a desperate and deliberate effort from corporate interests who see the
    tide turning against them in WA. These attacks are wrong on a number
    of fundamental levels.

    1. Pushback against corporate style ed reform is coming from much
    more than just teachers. Numerous Democratic districts have voted to
    oppose charters, always in virtually unanimous votes. Similarly, the
    League of Women Voters has firmly opposed them. In addition, numerous
    parent groups have opposed them (Parents Across America
    Seattle/Tacoma/Tri-Cities/Spokane, Citizens United for Responsible
    Education, and numerous school PTSAs).

    2. We SHOULD listen to teachers on ed policy. This is what other
    high-achieving countries do. And, it’s the right thing to do. (yes,
    there are other stakeholders, but teachers have EARNED the right to
    have an important voice).

    3. Having lots of money doesn’t entitle someone to dictate policy.
    That’s not how democracy is supposed to work. Nick’s tantrum shows
    how entitled and out of touch he is.

    Thanks again,

    -Demian

    36th district Democrat
    Parent of two Seattle Public School kids
    PTA legislative rep for Ballard HS
    Member of Parents Across America
    And, BTW, I’m not a teacher and have never been a union member

  3. joanie
    February 26, 2012

    I’m no Pelz fan since his abominable treatment of Hong Tran in her primary against Cantwell. (I hope I recalled the name – Hong’s – correctly!) However, it seems when the topic hits close to home as it has for you now, you see the long and fair view. Why do I think if your wife were not a teacher, you’d be in the camp of the elites? Having said that, I’m a teacher. I agree with your letter. Now, go talk to Nick Hanauer.

    • An SEA Member
      February 26, 2012

      I remember all the hand wringing about how a primary is divisive & then … Maria wouldn’t be able to … support Bernanke? Kow-Tow to the American “Health” Insurance Pigz… (AHIP)? … dump on Acorn? Josh Feit of Publicola who rarely misses a chance to do stenography for all things Gate$ Reform thinks Maria’s feeble stuff about Wall Street derivatives has mattered.

      Oh well, on Dwight – if it weren’t for his wife, he probably would be standing shoulder to shoulder with all the New Know Nothings offering Nothing New but their Shifted Status Quo.

      Dwight’s bragged to me about all he did for Howard Dean … maybe Dwight is sick of the Rueven / Kerry branch of sell outs?

  4. An SEA Member
    February 26, 2012

    Cynthia – in the new Shifted Status Quo, New Ideas aren’t paid for, just like in the Old Status Quo. In the new Shifted Status Quo, we get NEW 6 figure a year people who are not at schools telling us what to do. In the new Shifted Status Quo, we get Bill Gate’s picking up the paychecks of the off-site parasites!

    Great letter Dwight – and I’m going to build upon Cynthia in my own way.

    WHEN is the Democratic Party going to stand up against the 1% and for the bottom 80%+++? You see, when a turncoat sell out like Rodney Tom is allowed to push his lies on the state because of Boeing and Microsoft, you’re NOT working for us, you’re working for THEM. Boeing and Microsoft are bashing teachers & public employees because Boeing and Microsoft can NOT have any sector of the LABOR market which isn’t servile and cowed. Pretty complicated, no?

  5. seattleducation2011
    February 26, 2012

    Cynthia,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    The best action to take is to contact Pelz directly and let him know of your concerns about teacher evaluations based on test scores.

    Dora

  6. Cynthia Sloan
    February 26, 2012

    I agree with almost everything you wrote. Not this though: “The current evaluation bill–a compromise that only proves the point that Democrats can and do lead collaboratively on reform measures–is a good step forward, assuming funding is available to make it work.” Having teachers’ evaluation based on students’ scores, even in part, is ludicrous. Look at the teachers’ scores revealed in the N.Y Times; the same teacher(depending on class/subject) is rated “high” and “below average” at the same time. In addition, having student scores determine teachers’ “effectiveness” makes testing, and test prepping our priority.

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