Which way for the WEA?

May 9, 2013

The Washington Education Association (WEA) held its annual Representative Assembly on April 25-27, where delegates passed resolutions in support of the MAP test boycott by Seattle teachers and solidarity efforts for May Day, among other intiatives. Dan Trocolli, a Seattle teacher and union activist, wrote this article for Educator's Vision, a publication of Social Equality Educators, for distribution at the assembly.

THIS WEEKEND, the Washington Education Association will convene its annual delegation. Delegates will be debating future courses of action for the union.

The past year has seen further advances of so-called "education reform," in the form of the passing of a charter school initiative in Washington and the advancement of Common Core nationally, but also the Chicago Teachers Union strike and the MAP test boycott in Seattle.

In February of this year, the Equity and Excellence Commission, convened by the U.S. Education Department, released a report citing the root of the failures of the education system as still being deeply segregated by wealth and race. Among other things, the report called for a more equitable and stable funding of the public education system.

The Washington state Supreme Court agreed, affirming a ruling in January 2012 that the state has failed in its "paramount duty to fully fund education" and issued a strong timeline for the state to correct its dereliction. Despite over $2.6 billion in budget cuts to the K-12 system in the state over the previous four years and this ruling, the state legislature failed to find a way to increase funding for schools last year and is now stuck with a mandate to provide over $1 billion in additional funding this biennium, with further anticipated revenue shortfalls.

WEA members in Battle Ground, Washington, take inspiration from the growing revolt against testing
WEA members in Battle Ground, Washington, take inspiration from the growing revolt against testing

For its part, the WEA has invested much time and energy in the lawsuit, initiated by the union in 2007, as an attempt to stop years of anemic cuts to education and bring about pressure for a more stable source of funding. Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the country, where the poorest 20 percent pay 17 percent of their income in state taxes while the richest 1 percent pay less than 3 percent. With no state income tax, the funding problem will remain while the economy stagnates.

THE UNION now faces a question of how best to continue to pressure the state to do the right thing, given its clear intransigence and inability to rectify the funding issue. It's useful to look at two different strategies in the recent past for how to defend public education, so that we can effectively chart a new direction for the union.

The first would be the campaign to defeat Initiative 1240, introducing charter schools in Washington for the first time. By less than 1 percentage point--50.7 to 49.3 percent--voters narrowly approved the measure last fall. Voters had previously rejected charter schools 3 times in 1996, 2000 and 2004 when brought to the ballot.

When local billionaires and ed deform groups raised $11 million to place 1240 on the ballot, public education activists initially looked to the WEA to pull together a "no" campaign, and after some time initiated one on their own. However, according to the chair of the No on 1240 campaign, Melissa Westbrook, a month later, the WEA then started its own campaign against 1240, called "People for Our Public Schools."

Putting aside questions about why the union would organize separately from education activists and parents interested in defeating charter schools, Westbrook cites from their collaboration that the union wanted to avoid talking about the details of the initiative.

The details they avoided included the uber-wealthy sources of funding for 1240 and the parent trigger element brought to light by Wayne Au, a professor of education at University of Washington Bothell, in his article "Beware the Trigger." Initiative 1240 has a provision allowing parents or teachers of a school to convert their school to a charter by a majority vote. However, as Au points out, this would be the most aggressive trigger law in the U.S.--most such laws only apply to "failing" schools whereas 1240's could apply to any school.

For their part, the union did put some substantial money into the campaign, with $250,000 from the National Education Association and $450,000 from WEA. However, according to spending reports on the Public Disclosure Commission's website, the union's campaign sat on $90,000 near the end of the election. In a race that ended so closely, this action has to be brought into question. Furthermore, the union's campaign, whose coffers dwarfed those of the grassroots campaign, did not have any TV, radio or print ads.

It is important to recognize that while the WEA did spend money on defeating 1240, that money paled in comparison to the money spent on Democratic politicians in the same election. While officially, the union can only give a maximum of $1,800 directly to individual candidates, WEA did give roughly $1 million to a labor and community coalition called OUR Washington, which was primarily focused on electing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee. NEA also contributed another $500,000 to OUR Washington. OUR Washington did pay for many television, radio and print ads in support of Inslee and against his opponent.

Of course, the Republican candidate was an outright supporter of charter schools, but what was Inslee's position? While Inslee maintained his strong "support of public schools," he never did voice opposition to charter schools. And when he spoke to the 2012 WEA Representative Assembly last April, he said that he was opposed to charter schools that are not accountable to the people, leaving room for interpretation of any future charter laws that he may be faced with.

More important than the fact that the union places way too much emphasis and reliance on supposed friends in high places is the undeniable problem that when you don't fight the ideological struggle, in this case over charter schools, you concede political ground that your opponents will use to pressure your elected friends later.

NOW LET'S contrast that strategy of the WEA's with that of grassroots education activists in Seattle.

When teachers at Seattle's Garfield High School decided to boycott the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) in January, they touched off a national movement of parents, teachers and students against standardized testing. The teachers and students in the boycotting schools have been brought together and transformed by the struggle in ways that have not happened in a long time.

The entire terms of debate around education reform have been rearranged in both Seattle and Washington, a state that leads the nation in the number of standardized tests that students have to take through their education.

Much to the chagrin of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Equity and Excellence Commission placed less emphasis on reforms such as charters and test-based accountability, and focused instead on funding inequity.

Duncan has already tried to distance himself from the findings, declaring the commission's mandate to be outside the department's. If teachers want to see substantial changes in the direction the commission charted, we will need to mount a struggle such as the MAP boycott and the Chicago teachers strike, which contrasts the reforms of the wealthy with the needs of the majority.

WEA delegates will be posed with questions and motions from these same activist educators about how to better organize our union and fight for real reform of our schools that promises better education for all students, not just a select few.

First published at Educator's Vision, published by Social Equality Educators.

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