A major education reform group that endorsed Gov. Christine Gregoire in the last gubernatorial election this year has given their endorsement in the 2012 governor’s race to Republican candidate Rob McKenna, an indication that a dramatic political shift is occurring in state politics on the issue of education.

Stand for Children—a nonpartisan education advocacy group—made their endorsement decision after a blended selection process that in part involved a “blind taste test” in which the questionnaires submitted by McKenna and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee were circulated to Stand for Children’s members and each voted for the set of responses they felt best matched their group’s approach to improving learning in Washington state.

In the final tally, “Candidate A”—McKenna—garnered 50 percent of the votes compared to 38 percent who selected “Candidate B”, Inslee. (Twelve percent chose not to select either candidate.)

In addition to the member survey, the Washington Stand Political Action Committee Board also voted 9-2 to endorse McKenna for Governor.

“McKenna is incredibly aligned with our policy goals for kids, has the track record of entrepreneurial leadership, and will make improving outcomes for students and closing the achievement gap a top priority for his administration,” said Shannon Campion, Executive Director of Washington Stand, in the organization’s press release. “Our children need and deserve a governor who will put them first.”

Stand for Children’s “Pepsi Challenge” may have been the only way to peel away party loyalties and answer the core question—which candidate do members feel will best advance the interests of students in our state’s education system?

“As a lifelong Democrat, I’ll admit that I struggled with this decision. The fact is that party labels just aren’t a good enough reason to not endorse the right champion for education,” said Jennifer Vranek, a Stand PAC Board member and founder of the policy firm Education First. “I was really impressed with McKenna’s depth of knowledge and passion about education. We’re looking for a change agent, and after the interviews it was clear that Rob McKenna will prioritize education and get better results for our kids.”

After last year’s State Supreme Court decision in McCleary v. State of Washington ruled that the state has a constitutionality responsibility to put education needs first among its many priorities, action in the state Legislature since the decision has highlighted substantive differences between Republicans and Democrats on precisely what solutions are required to deliver the highest quality education to children while reining in costs.

During recent sessions, Republicans in Olympia responded to McCleary by making reform of the K-12 system a matter of hot pursuit but were stalled by a Democratic set of legislative roadblocks in committee, in one very public instance earning State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) and State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-Seattle) dishonorable mention from The Seattle Times editorial board.

From The Seattle Times earlier this year:

STATE lawmakers are again punting on sensible education reforms.

Senate education committee chair Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, and her counterpart in the House, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, used their gavels to doom promising legislation adding accountability to teacher evaluations and allowing a small number of charter schools into our state.

“It is discouraging that two individuals could completely block the dialogue from happening,” said Ramona Hattendorf, of the Washington state PTA. “The idea of having a good evaluation and discussing how it should be used is not radical.”

McAuliffe and Santos were aided by a stunning lack of political courage by all but a handful of Democrats.

One key Democrat—State Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D-Renton)—was among the courage-deficient Democrats who previously campaigned on the promise of working to reform education but failed to push back publicly against her own party’s obstructionist tactics. I wrote at the time:

Parents, students, and an underachieving educational system are the collateral victims of the brazen political tactic, as well as at least one Democrat—State Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D-Renton)—fell outside the protective phalanx of the majority party’s enigmatic strategy for governing the state during last week’s education maneuver.

Following the committee action last week, Maxwell voiced a livid complaint to State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz about a tactic that could make her vulnerable with voters this fall, according to an unnamed source. (Maxwell received dishonorable mention in The Seattle Times’ editorial last Friday for not standing up to House Education Committee chair State Rep. Sharon Tomiko-Santos (D-Seattle).)

Pelz was reportedly unmoved by Maxwell’s peril.

The potential leadership of a governor whose agenda lines up more with the reform side—such as McKenna’s does—would be one large step to allowing new ideas about reform to be heard in the fight to improve education.

A decision this fall by parents and concerned citizens to retire Tomiko Santos, McAuliffee, Maxwell and others who stalwartly defend a failing system would be another.

Read McKenna’s and Inslee’s answers to the questionnaire and watch their endorsement interview videos on the Stand for Children website.