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Originally published Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 8:05 PM

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Dems draw fire from top donors in rift over education reform

Several well-heeled Democratic Party donors have split with the state party and legislative leaders over education reform.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — Several well-heeled Democratic donors have openly split with the state party and legislative leaders over education reform, arguing Washington is falling behind because lawmakers are afraid to buck the teachers union.

Donors say they fear the Democratic Party could lose ground to Republicans on the issue. Some even say they're on the fence when it comes to supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna or Democratic candidate Jay Inslee, given the candidates' stances on education.

It's rare for what amounts to a Democratic family fight to get aired in public, but the parties to this feud are dragging out the dirty laundry with gusto as they argue over what reform really means.

The dispute boiled to the surface this month when venture capitalist Nick Hanauer fired off a widely circulated email saying, "I have seen the enemy, and it is us. It is impossible to escape the painful reality that we Democrats are now on the wrong side of every important education-reform issue."

Hanauer, who's contributed more than $2.5 million to Democratic campaigns and causes since 2001, is particularly ticked off about what he considers a lack of progress this year on beefing up teacher evaluations and allowing charter schools. The Obama administration has advocated both on a national level.

He also contends that the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state's largest teachers union, has far too much sway with Democratic leaders and "is literally strangling our public schools to death."

State records show the WEA has contributed more than $900,000 to the state Democratic Party since 2002 and more than $300,000 to state House and Senate Democratic campaign committees alone. The union also regularly donates thousands to individual candidates and causes.

Hanauer's letter, which was picked up by the local news website PubliCola, provoked a series of tit-for-tat exchanges between him and WEA President Mary Lindquist. She told Hanauer he was wrong and added at one point, "we do not have the luxury of theorizing from behind locked doors of high-rise office buildings in downtown Seattle. We work with students every day."

In an interview Friday, Lindquist dismissed the notion the WEA has too much influence, saying, "If we had as much clout as some say we do, the world would be a very different place."

Not content to leave matters alone, Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz weighed in with a letter Saturday, questioning the value of education reforms such as linking teacher evaluations to test scores.

He called it an untested fad, one of many that have hit schools over the years. "Ed Reform is like the weather, if you hang around, it will change," he wrote.

Education is key issue

Education reform emerged as a key issue during the legislative session, with Republicans, moderate Democrats and business pushing bills that, among other things, would allow student performance to be factored in to teacher evaluations.

A compromise bill, which passed the Senate and is moving through the House, says teachers must be evaluated on several criteria, including "student growth data." What that data includes — such as student test scores — would be negotiated with unions on a district-by-district basis.

Bills allowing charter schools were introduced but have gone nowhere, although moderate Democrats are trying to keep the legislation alive in the Senate. The session is scheduled to end March 8.

The WEA has opposed charter-school legislation and the teacher-evaluation bill.

Democratic leaders disagree that the Legislature has moved too slowly on education issues, or that their party kowtows to the teachers union.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said Democrats pushed through a charter-school bill in 2004 that was repealed by voters, passed legislation in 2009 that significantly changed what constitutes basic education in the state, and is close to approving the measure linking teacher evaluations to student performance.

The WEA fought Democrats in all three cases, which shows the union doesn't always get its way, he said.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, also made the case for not rushing into additional reforms, given the past several years of budget cuts.

"We've been asking schools to do more with less. We've been asking teachers and school employees to take pay cuts and furloughs and reductions in benefits," she said. "At a point and time when we're not adding more resources and in fact are cutting, I think that's very stressful at the local level."

And she noted that imposing one-size-fits-all solutions for a diverse state can create problems. "I don't think Olympia should be the great school board in the sky," she said.

Criticism of "half a bill"

Hanauer, a partner at venture-capital firm Second Avenue Partners, and others argue the state should be doing more.

In a recent interview, he called the teacher-evaluation measure "half a bill."

"It's a nod in the right direction," he said, "but it allows every district to bargain the degree to which outcomes will be used as a part of the measurement. So you have 296 separate districts. Each of them bargaining, so where do you think you're going to get? Maybe an inch."

He added that lawmakers are dragging their feet on charter schools and other issues.

"The large point is, the leadership of my party is not leading the charge on these issues and in fact is highly resistant to most of them," Hanauer said. "That simply doesn't suit me and most of my progressive friends anymore. Enough is enough."

Although clearly irked at the WEA, Hanauer was careful to emphasize his broader support for unions and their role, saying "a successful capitalist society cannot survive without them."

Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive and co-president of the Climate Solutions board, said he agrees with much of what Hanauer says, particularly when it comes to the WEA.

"I think the Democratic leadership has allowed themselves to be held hostage by the teachers union," said Blumenthal who has contributed more than $300,000 to different causes over the years, including Democratic candidates and the state party.

Jon Bridge, co-chief executive officer and general counsel for Ben Bridge Jeweler, said he opposes charter schools, and is happier with the current teacher-evaluation bill than Hanauer, saying, "half a glass is better than none at all."

Yet he, too, said the teachers union has too much sway in Olympia. State records show Bridge has contributed to Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire and King County Executive Dow Constantine, as well as other campaigns and causes, though not on the scale of Hanauer or Blumenthal.

He said the vast sums of money flowing into "crazy" political-action committees have rattled the Democratic Party.

"So any time the WEA gets nervous about something, the Democrats are afraid to do anything because that's their only really deep pocket," Bridge said.

Months left to decide

Lisa Macfarlane, co-founder of the League of Education Voters, recently left that group to head a local chapter of Democrats for Education Reform with the intent to back Democrats willing to push through education changes and buck what they consider to be the status quo.

"Democrats need to take a stronger leadership role on education reform, otherwise we just hand what is arguably the most important issue facing our state's future economic development over to the Republicans," she said in an email exchange.

Hanauer said he's so concerned about education in the state that he's debating which candidate to support in the race for governor.

"Anybody who has looked at the education platforms of the two guys who are running for governor, it's hard not to look at McKenna's and think um, 'crisper, thought through,' " said Hanauer, who donated to Inslee's campaign last fall. "I do not want to be a prisoner of orthodoxy ... Time to bust out."

McKenna supports charter schools and says the teacher-evaluation bill in the Legislature doesn't go far enough.

Inslee backs the compromise teacher-evaluation bill, but his position on charter schools was less definitive. "What Jay supports is innovation in our schools, whatever we want to call them," his press secretary wrote in an email, noting that any innovation must maintain funding of existing schools, be open to all students and honor the rights of teachers.

Hanauer said he still has "months to decide" which candidate to support. He isn't alone in taking a look at McKenna.

"At this point, I am on the fence, although I have contributed to Jay because I'm a Democrat," said Bridge. "I'm considering both because of policy. I'm open to being convinced on a number of different levels."

State records show Bridge made one contribution to McKenna in 2007 in addition to two contributions to Inslee last year.

Hanauer said he plans to meet with McKenna in a few weeks. Randy Pepple, McKenna's campaign manager, acknowledged that meeting and said he expects there will be more meetings with other Democratic donors, but he would not mention names.

Pelz said he doesn't see a threat. "The fact is, Jay Inslee represents their values and Rob McKenna does not," he said.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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