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Originally published February 21, 2012 at 5:25 PM | Page modified February 22, 2012 at 10:06 AM

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The overdue split among Democrats on education reform

The Washington Education Association's rigid anti-education-reform stance puts the Democratic Party at risk. A longterm political relationship hits a rough patch.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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Major Democratic funder Nick Hanauer's recent email blasting Democratic lawmakers for failing to buck the teachers union and push for education reforms will go down as the tough-love message heard around the state.

"It is impossible to escape the painful reality that we Democrats are now on the wrong side of every important education-reform issue," wrote Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist, to other party faithful.

"Today, the (teachers union) is literally strangling our public schools to death with an almost infinite number of institutionalized rules that limit change, innovation and excellence."

Hanauer also announced plans to meet with Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna.

Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist fired off a public letter criticizing Hanauer for daring to think for himself. (Having the teachers union come out flailing here did not help the Democrats' argument that they're not a political subsidiary of the WEA.)

If Lindquist and Democrats mean to shush Hanauer and other critics, they are purposefully ignoring the donkey in the room, which is this: a growing number of Democrats are unhappy with their elected leaders' refusal to go big on education reforms.

Reformers watched in dismay as Democratic leaders blocked key reforms including exchanging an outdated seniority-based layoff policy for one based on performance and overhauling the billion-dollar health-insurance program for school employees.

Hanauer is the Democrats' guy. He wants them to win and has long put his money where his mouth is. So what do you do when a friend tells you that you are wrong? You listen.

It is a matter of political life or death. Votes are up for grabs this election year.

Party identity is down. More people consider themselves politically independent these days than a Democrat or a Republican.

A generation ago, the political lines were clearer, particularly on education issues. But Republicans smartly shed right-wing tirades against the federal Department of Education and for vouchers. Democrats meanwhile remain fixated on tight education budgets, which while true, makes them appear stuck in a time warp.

Staking ground on education reform has fallen to a relatively new cadre of Republicans such as state Sens. Joe Fain of Auburn; Andy Hill of Redmond; and Steve Litzow of Mercer Island. By joining with moderate Democrats, including Sen. Rodney Tom, Medina, a key compromise toughening teacher evaluations was revived.

For all their talk about vulnerable families and struggling schoolchildren, Democrats in the House were largely silent as their colleague, Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, stepped up with a charter-school bill so unthreatening it could have been used as a trial balloon. Turns out some liberal Democrats are as sick of failing schools as everyone else. Democrats for Education Reform is one of a number of new pro-reform advocacy groups.

Don't forget that most prominent of Democrats who is leading the public school reform charge: President Obama.

On the national front, the American Federation of Teachers has wisely chosen to work with state legislatures shaping teacher-evaluation systems. Even the largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has toned down its rhetoric against Obama.

If Washington teachers want to have input, they have to convince their union leaders to come inside and negotiate on a number of education issues.

People are starting to see the light about Democrats' intransigence. But beam that spotlight over to Republicans as well. McKenna and other GOP candidates touting education must add up their promises one day and likely realize what I already suspect: Education reforms can't be paid for by simply reprioritizing government.

I fully comprehend that Democrats are in a tough spot, but their reluctance to buck one of their biggest benefactors is what I don't get. Where would the union go?

For lawmakers, it will be hard to tell that ally, "I'm sorry, but I can't support you on this issue." But that's leadership. Tough love is difficult but as any parent will tell you, it's necessary sometimes.

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

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