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Originally published Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Eastside Republicans get schooled

When I tell Seattleites I make my home on the Eastside, I get the kind of stare usually reserved for someone claiming residence on Mars...

When I tell Seattleites I make my home on the Eastside, I get the kind of stare usually reserved for someone claiming residence on Mars.

I can practically hear brain gears shifting as the other person tries to connect my moderate politics with my supposedly conservative home address.

Call me a poster child for the Eastside as it completes the shift from conservative bastion to one of Democrat-electing, tax-levy-approving liberals like myself. In 2006, Republican candidates lost everything from Everett to Kent. Those wanting to keep their jobs saw the handwriting on the wall and changed parties. One can argue that state Sen. Rodney Tom, a Medina Republican-turned-Democrat, was always a donkey in an elephant suit. But the defection of Rep. Fred Jarrett is a wake-up call.

"Olympia is a one-party town," mourns Luke Esser, chair of the state Republican Party.

Jarrett represents Mercer Island, home to one of the state's top-performing school districts. That small factoid underscores my belief that the Democratic trend on the Eastside is fueled by one dominant issue: education.

Local Republicans just haven't been responsive or imaginative enough. The party that joined its national brethren in trying to kill the Department of Education is realizing too late that voters like public education. In Washington state, 95 percent of children attend public schools.

Esser's predecessor, Chris Vance, advises Republicans to fall in love with public education. Drop divisive buzzwords like "government schools" and start talking about teachers' pay, accountability and the value of standardized testing.

"The mistake the GOP has made is that when you attack the teachers union, it comes across as attacking teachers and there is no one more popular than a teacher," Vance says.

Vance is only half right. Forget attacks on the teachers union, how about the ridiculous GOP anti-tax mantras in Eastside communities, where affluent families happily vote to increase their property taxes to pay for school needs?

My neighbors and I are no fools. We see that education spending hasn't kept pace with state budget growth, hence the need to dig into our own pockets. In the legislative session that started Monday, we want to hear lawmakers' ideas for closing funding gaps and streamling the too-complex funding system. The last thing we want to hear is lower taxes and smaller school budgets.

State Rep. Ross Hunter, a Bellevue Democrat, wakes up smarter on education issues than the rest of us. I cite him as one reason Republicans are becoming extinct on the Eastside.

Through doorbelling and town-hall meetings, Hunter hears concerns about education. Granted, people want shorter work commutes, they worry about a slowing economy and hope the mortgage crisis doesn't deepen, but mostly they want the best educational opportunities for their children.

Hunter's grasp of my needs and the needs of my neighbors is strong. We want accountability. He is a proponent of linking teachers' pay with performance. But while Republicans would use test scores, Hunter appropriately worries about designing a compensation package around a narrow measurement such as testing.

The ability to fire bad teachers was always a vote-getter for the GOP. But most of us can see through that red herring. The truth is, a good superintendent can get a terrible teacher out of the classroom faster than lawmakers can agree on this issue. An example is former Bellevue Schools Superintendent Mike Riley, who was rarely squeamish about getting rid of bad teachers.

Other educational concerns will continue to buoy Democratic prospects on the Eastside. One is multicultural education. Partisan debate two years ago weakened an agreement between school districts and tribes on who gets to write Native American curriculum. Proponents of diversity want inclusion in curriculum and academic standards.

Requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law continue to challenge the well-performing schools on the Eastside. The federal law's pressure on districts to educate all children, rather than a select few, is its best feature. But the Democrats speak to Eastside families when they tell us the mandates must come with enough money to implement them.

The political narrative of the suburbs is being rewritten. The GOP has been chased to the foothills, literally representing three districts covering the Snoqualmie Valley, Sammamish and King County's eastern edge. The rallying cry is education.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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