On Friday morning, Steve Scher of KUOW Radio (NPR-Seattle) interviewed Mary Lindquist, president of the state teachers union (WEA), about the union’s lawsuit to block children’s access to voter-approved charter schools. Here is a part of their conversation (at 12:15):
Scher: About the lawsuit against the charter school amendment — if you try to have allies on both sides of the aisle (in the Legislature), you know there are people who look at the charter school effort as a way to look at the union’s power and maybe bring about some change in that power. Aren’t you just setting yourself up to be in a fight with the very same people you want to fund education fully if you go after the charter school amendment?
Lindquist: …We are going to work with all legislators — legislators that are pro-charter schools and legislators who are against public sector unions — because our children deserve that.
Scher: Do you think that means an agreed-upon reduction in the union’ s influence on health care, on contracts, on pay, on seniority, on evaluation in order to get the larger funding issue settled?
Lindquist: No, I think the talk about the power of the union is perhaps exaggerated. The real power lies in the fact that the teachers and educators who work with our students every day are among the most respected members in our communities…. So I don’t think it is an issue of a big bad union, but about teachers being the most respected members of the community.
While President Lindquist’s modesty is charming, the union wields considerable power over education policy in Washington.
Her power is based on the WEA’s monopoly position within the system, and because union membership is mandatory for most public sector teachers. Teachers must devote $900 of their pay annually to the WEA. Each year the union, a private labor organization, receives about $33 million in budgeted education funds in the form of required dues. School districts must provide free bookkeeping and money collection services as well, and school officials are required to guarantee that funds are electronically transferred to union bank accounts each month.
Times have changed. The union appears to be out of step with Washington public opinion on charter schools. This change, for the first time in years, is raising questions about reducing the union’s power in setting school policy.
In one week the 2013 Legislative Session begins. Will the union’s loss of influence in the charter school debate translate to other losses in the Legislature? Will the union’s legal attack on charter schools prompt legislative attempts to weaken excessive union power? Frustrating the will of voters with lawsuits is not popular in the Legislature. It is certainly not popular with voters. Many of the Legislature’s elected representatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, support giving children access to charter schools.
The National Education Association has issued a policy statement describing their support for charter schools, which you can find here. The American Federation of Teachers says this on their website: “The American Federation of Teachers strongly supports charter schools.”
The WEA remains the primary obstacle to education reform in Washington. The WEA led opposition to charter schools on three previous occasions, and was at the forefront of the recent “No” campaign, until its position was recently overruled by voters. WEA executives now say they plan to support a lawsuit against charter schools. The lawsuit will be funded by money taken from school teachers, many of whom likely voted for the law their union is trying to overturn.