Education Matters: 5 Reasons Why the Seattle School Board Election Matters Nationally

Newly-elected Seattle School Board Director Sue Peters and teacher-activist Jesse Hagopian
Newly-elected Seattle School Board Director Sue Peters and teacher-activist Jesse Hagopian

CLARIFICATION: Great Seattle Schools, a legally independent political action committee supporting Suzanne Dale Estey's campaign, and not the candidate or her campaign, paid for negative ads against the Sue Peters for School Board campaign.

An opinion piece in a recent New York Times opinion piece caught my eye. Entitled Plutocrats vs. Populists, and published just prior to Election Day, it makes the case that, although the rich keep getting richer and more powerful, populists are an important political force to be reckoned with.

Such was the case with the Seattle School Board race between Sue Peters and Suzanne Dale Estey.

It was a race about passion.

It was also a race about money.

Grassroots education activist Peters, who attracted the support of anti-education reform activist Diane Ravitch, triumphed over Suzanne Dale Estey, who heavily outspent her rival and received significant financial support from wealthy businessmen.

It's a race that should be viewed as a bellwether for the future of the national debate about public education. Here's why:

1. Money talks

In this case, money was seen as "talking smack," most notably in the form of negative campaign literature, distributed just prior to Election Day, showing Peters' photo alongside a photo of the soul-sucking dementors of Harry Potter fame.

"Why is big money trying to buy this election?" wondered Peters, who said she prided herself on running an integrity-based grassroots campaign for this unpaid position.

Voters, who were not necessarily up-to-speed on or invested in the issues, paid attention to that question, which overshadowed the candidates' stances on the new Common Core standards and other education matters. It fueled the fire of concern about corporate influence on education.

2. But does money listen?

Negative tactics used earlier by the Dale Estey campaign had been poorly received by the public, an ironic twist of events, because Peters entered the race with an abrasive reputation and Dale Estey portrayed herself as a peacemaker.

Dale Estey, who claimed not to be aware of or in control of some of her campaign P.R. machinery, also admitted to me on Election Night that such tactics are a calculated risk. She said experts had told her that the gains from negative publicity far outstrip the losses.

This blind faith in "experts" contradicts the image Dale Estey sought to portray, that of a homegrown girl in touch with the concerns of Seattle families. Had she listened to the people whose doorbells she rang, instead of experts, and followed her own instincts, she might have understood early on that negativity was a problem, especially when negative ads were purchased by wealthy donors.

Nationally, critics of corporate education reform cite arrogance as an ongoing concern, with too much reliance on the opinions of "experts," who often come from the private sector, and not enough reliance on the opinions of educators.

3. Passion pays off

Even if you didn't agree with Peters' positions on the issues, which have been organized under the umbrella of anti-corporate education reform, there was no mistaking her knowledge and passion, qualities Dale Estey seemed to lack.

Nationally, passion exists on both sides of the spectrum in the education debate. But, though her arguments can be polemic and she has been criticized for selective use of statistics, anti-education reform activist Diane Ravitch, who endorsed Peters, has touched a national nerve with her book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and Danger to America's Public Schools.

She speaks passionately about poverty and its impact on kids.

She speaks passionately about the need to treasure and support public education.

She speaks passionately about the demoralization of teachers, which is not to be discounted.

A Seattle teacher friend of mine recently described receiving her performance ranking, based on student growth data (test scores). She was classified as "typical," and has yet to receive any further explanation.

"I found this demotivating," she said. "I work super hard and some days, I am an exceptional teacher. What does 'typical' mean?"

4. Teacher power

The role of teachers is one of the most significant elements of today's education debate. Teachers feel they are blamed for poor student trajectories, though factors such as as poverty and family support play important roles in student success.

Improving teacher quality is often cited as the linchpin to improving our education system. To a certain extent, teachers' unions have bought into this, supporting teachers who seek to become Nationally Board Certified and, in the case of the Seattle Teachers Union, working closely with Seattle Public Schools to develop a groundbreaking teacher evaluation system and Urban Teacher Residency program.

Now, the debate has turned toward the quality of teacher preparation, with Finland and other countries lauded for their selective and rigorous teacher preparation programs.

But a crucial distinction is that in the U.S., teaching is a populist, rather than an elitist, career, which typifies the American dream. Teachers in the U.S. may not enjoy the same level of respect as their Finnish or South Korean counterparts, but an argument can be made that a broader spectrum of students and families can relate to them.

Peters earned the support of many teachers who are fed up with the blame game.

One of them confronted me at the Election Night night gathering of Peters supporters.

"I know you," he shouted. "I saw you at a [controversial education reform activist] Michelle Rhee event. You write Right-wing crap and you just want to blame teachers for everything."

5. This is only a test

Peters expressed concerns about standardized testing, joining a backlash against this practice that is gaining momentum. Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian (pictured above with Peters) made national news  for his leadership in boycotting the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test and has been traveling the U.S. as a mentor to other anti-testing advocates.

Hagopian is a leader of the Social Equality Educators (SEE) caucus of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) and is reportedly interested in running for SEA president, replacing Jonathan Knapp, whose two-year term expires in 2014.

Social Equality Educators were stalwart during this year's tense contract negotiations between SPS and SEA. They don't believe the deal that was ultimately struck to avoid a strike went far enough in ensuring a fair contract. The two-year contract will be renegotiated in 2015. Next time, SEE has plans to push harder, even if it means a strike.

2seaLong-range lens

So what does the future hold for Seattle and for the rest of the nation as the churn over public education continues?

Buoyed by election, but tainted by the history of a dysfunctional Seattle School Board, Peters, who has a reputation for "not suffering fools" will have to carefully consider her style, which critics have found confrontational.

She tempered this significantly during the campaign, a positive sign.

But on election night she looked me squarely in the eye and asked why, in a previous article, I had called her a "self-proclaimed" education advocate.

"That's demeaning," she said.

For a moment I felt like a zebra confronting a lion. But I realized she had a point.

As the pendulum swings towards the populists, I wonder what they will do with their mandate.

This is a golden opportunity to make education reform what Peters says it should be – a "neutral" term – and to ensure that the voices and ideas of educators are part of the architecture of change.

This is a golden opportunity for those who engage in polemics to stop and to acknowledge that people who have a stake in reforming education are probably doing so out of passion, not just to make a buck or demonize teachers.

Ironically, both sides of the debate have the same goal: Ensuring that all students have equal access to an excellent eduction.

This is a golden opportunity for moderation.

This is a wake-up call. For all sides of the debate.

Education news

The Nation Gets its Report Card: The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the reading and math test scores of fourth and eighth grade students around the U.S. The scores showed incremental improvements nationwide. Washington was among the states with higher than average NAEP scores. Learn more here.

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