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Originally published April 4, 2013 at 4:32 PM | Page modified April 5, 2013 at 1:12 PM

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Time for Washington Education Association to do a self-exam

Editorial columnist Lynne K. Varner writes that the Washington Education Association needs to go through the same self-examination undertaken by the Republican Party.

Times editorial columnist

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As painful as the analogy may be, the Washington Education Association (WEA) needs to go through the same self-examination undertaken by the Republican Party.

The 82,000-member union must ask itself who its audience is and, just as important, who its members are. The union must start to embrace diversity, in every sense of the word.

If that happens it will come as a welcome relief to Todd Hausman. The Bellingham third- and fourth-grade teacher has been so marginalized by the union to which he belongs that I’m surprised he hasn’t resigned himself to suffering in silence.

Union leaders do not like Hausman’s views. He’s a contrarian, to be sure. When the union was looking to staff phone banks for the gubernatorial election last fall, Hausman asked to come in and make calls for the Republican candidate, Rob McKenna.

The response: Don’t come in at all.

One could argue that the union, putting its considerable political heft behind the Democratic candidate, Jay Inslee, was protecting its investment. But this is a case of tin ears blocking common sense. Given a single phone and a desk in a corner, how many voters could Hausman have contacted? A dozen? Meanwhile, the union’s formidable political machine would have reached tens of thousands.

Tolerance for a divergent view, especially one that by itself would not have threatened the election’s outcome, was the better option.

More recently, the union paid for substitutes for teachers going en masse to Olympia to testify before the state Legislature. Hausman was informed his lack of financial support for the union’s political arm, WEA-PAC, counted him out. That he would have offered a divergent viewpoint likely did not go unnoticed.

“I don’t think my union offers an environment that facilitates divergent thinking,” Hausman, 42, says. “I’ve heard everything from, ‘You’re burning bridges,’ to charges of insubordination.”

I see Hausman as a barometer of the union’s future. Especially because he and a small but growing number of teachers are building Teachers United into a needed counterbalance to the WEA.

Dissent is healthy. But the WEA should worry if increasing numbers of teachers see it as an organization that is of more value to struggling teachers than successful ones.

The WEA offers job protection, but its young millennials seem to want more than that. They want a place to explore reform ideas and innovations in their profession.

Professional-advocacy group Teachers United is not trying to be a union, but rather a forum for those ideas. Most Teachers United members entered the profession in the past decade and a half, around the same time education reforms such as high-stakes testing took hold. They view assessments as another tool to inform teaching.

They embrace, rather than tolerate, technology. Facebook, Twitter and email responses from smartphones are a given. But the official union stance is still to bargain with districts over how much teachers need to use technology.

The union polls its members about reforms and studies its demographics. None of that is for public dissemination, I was told by a union spokesperson. But the issue was important enough to be the theme of a breakout session at a union regional conference a couple of years ago.

The WEA’s political clout remains unparalleled. It is the top spender for lobbying in Olympia, doling out more than $130,000 in the current legislative session, mostly for lobbyists and paid advertisements.

Later this month, the state teachers’ union will elect a leader to replace the retiring Mary Lindquist. The three front-running candidates are Oak Harbor Education Association President Peter Szalai, who calls himself the anti-establishment candidate and in a blog post referred to the “circular backslapping bureaucracy” of the state union; Kim Mead, president of the Everett Education Association, and Mike Ragan, vice president of WEA.

The choice ought to reflect more than a name change. An organization as large as the teachers’ union is not expected to speak with a singular voice but should bring more cogency to reform discussions than “show us the money.”

If the union doesn’t embrace reforms, many, including teachers and taxpayers, will rightly feel shortchanged.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is lvarner@seattletimes.com On Twitter @lkvarner

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