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 firstname.lastname@example.org.