Time will tell if the Washington Education Association chose Everett teacher Kim Mead to lead the 82,000-member union as part of a bid for fresher, bolder leadership. The union sorely needs more diversity in thinking and a more collaborative approach, as I argued in this column. Earlier this month, Mead made statements to The Everett Herald that indicated she was open to collaborating on education policies.
“We should be the ones driving the policies rather than be reactive,” Mead said. “We have to be the voice of public education and if we’re not, we’re not doing our job.”
This may be pragmatism disguised as openness. The union is scrambling to influence reform proposals it once refused to consider. An example is the state Legislature’s push to allow the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to intervene in struggling local schools. The state has always conceded education-related authority to local control. But the federal government’s smart use of grant funds to spur change in local schools is a model the state is looking to emulate.
I’ll take Mead’s point one step further: I said in this recent Opinion Northwest blog post that the union has to stop flailing and attacking everything and start leading on something. If Mead is looking for an example of the kind of collaborative relationships the union can and should be building, she should look to the Seattle Public Schools.
In Seattle, the district works with a non-profit, the Alliance for Education, and its union, the Seattle Education Association, on teacher training. The result is a teacher residency program at the University of Washington.
The WEA’s political reach and spending power are unparalled. The organization has never lacked for energy as evidenced by its ability to send more than 1,000 activists on 23 buses to Olympia for a Saturday rally on the Capitol steps. But the almost universal view that public schools must evolve and change has led to angst among some of the union’s biggest backers, something I wrote about last fall. The union must do more than flail away from atop its substantial bully pulpit. Mead is going to have to lead with a message that advances important workplace issues and joins the call by parents and taxpayers for better education outcomes. The WEA would say its call for more money is doing what I’ve asked. But money alone will not bring about those improvements.
Take for example, the teachers union’s call for lower class sizes. The value of smaller, more intimate learning settings is backed by compelling research. But it is extremely expensive and as a Gates Foundation study showed, pretty much meaningless unless other factors are also addressed, for example improving teacher quality.
Cost-of-living pay raises is another issue where the union has been less than honest. The state Legislature has reduced teacher pay. It must stop doing that. But school districts have used local levy funds to make up for the state cuts in teacher salaries. Particularly in the more well-off school districts, teachers have not endured the pay cuts seen by other public employees. It would not dilute the union’s call for better compensation to own up to this fact.