WEA strong-arm tactics invoke fear, but the union’s record in recent elections should embolden education reformers

Fullscreen capture 3262013 120603 PM.bmpTwo weeks ago, most Washingtonians only turned their clocks forward, but if spending on political attack ads is the sign of an election season underway the Washington Education  Association took it as a cue to turn their calendars forward, too.

In addition to earning top dog spender status for early 2013 among all lobbyists wooing state lawmakers in Olympia ($130,000 on lobbyists and ads as NPR’s Austin Jenkins reported Friday), the WEA is courting controversy with a historically early negative attack campaign aimed at four Republican and two Democratic state senators – state Sens. Rodney Tom (D-Medina), Bruce Dammeier (R-Puyallup), Andy Hill (R-Kirkland), Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island) and Joe Fain (R-Auburn).

One two-page WEA hit piece from the “Paramout Duty” campaign is reminiscent of an old-fashioned “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster, photos of all six officials arranged in line-up fashion under the union-christened name of their outlaw gang: “The Rodney Tom Six.” The WEA asks us to “remember their names,” an ominous turn of phrase that invokes thoughts of banishment and exile.

Their shocking crime against humanity in the opinion of the teachers union: “Shirking their duty to our children.”

Fact-checking reveals that many of the WEA’s claims of the Tom Gang’s atrocities against our youth either play it fast and loose with the truth, or ignore the truth entirely.

One deception in particular – the claim that Washington state ranks 43rd in the nation for per pupil spending – is one voters should get used to seeing and hearing because it has particular shock value in the budget wars.

The WEA piece does not give a citation for their factoid, but according to Washington Policy Center education policy director Liv Finne, the figure is bogus and was “generated by manipulating the data.”

“For example, that Washington is 43rd in the nation in per pupil spending is arrived at by including a calculation for the personal income and wealth of a state’s citizens,” Finne said. “Because we have people like Bill Gates and others, that is a skewed figure.”

Finne notes that the National Center for Education Statistics – a project of the U.S. Dept. of Education – ranks Washington state at 28th for per pupil spending in terms of actual dollars.

For a fact-check noting more of the errors, inaccuracies and distortions in the WEA’s hit piece, read Finne’s excellent Tuesday morning post on the Washington Policy Center blog.

The negative tone of a second WEA smear piece – one singling out Hobbs – provoked the ire of Seattle Times editorial board member Lynne Varner last Friday.

“Hell hath no fury like the Washington Education Association,” Varner wrote under the headline “Does the WEA stand for Washington Education Association or We Eviscerate Anyone?” Varner also does an excellent job of pointing out the fallacies and false statements in the WEA’s attacks and her piece is well worth reading.

WEA scare tactics: more bark, less bite

“Hobbs is nervous. He’d be a fool not to be,” Varner writes, giving the young Democrat permission to quiver in his boots in advance of his turn in the inquisition.

By now, we assume Tom is used to being served up to the Democratic base by Party bosses – a sacrificial offering of roast black sheep to appease the mob. But the WEA’s further indulgence of its political bloodlust this early in the campaign season is bound to weaken the knees of some politicians.

Still, how much anxiety is appropriate? Varner’s portrayal of the WEA as an attack-prone political organization is apt; the union offensive targeting Hobbs and five others is a tactic that sends a clear warning: do not stray off the plantation. But aside from the psychological impact of the WEA’s ‘horse head in the bed’ approach to getting its way, will threats and flashing of knives translate into blood being spilled (symbolically, of course) when votes are counted?

After all, though there can be no doubt of the WEA’s power over state politics, the union’s effect on elections in 2012 was, well, underwhelming.

Like a cat arching its back to scare off a much larger animal, WEA chose to play defense in the 2012 legislative races. The bulk of their resources were dedicated preserving the Democratic Party’s hold on the Governor’s office, to the re-election of key state legislators and to a failed effort to defeat Initiative 1240, the statewide measure to allow public charter schools in Washington state.

Adopting a passive posture may have left the union behemoth flat-footed and lethargic as seems to be evidenced by the tale of two legislative races in Vancouver’s 17th District, a House race that meant nothing in terms of the balance of power and a Senate race that wound up changing the whole ballgame.

It was easy to see by late October that Republican hopes for outright control of the state Senate were fading fast. Targeted swing district races (such as Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell)) were not panning out. Dreams of a Republican majority in the state House had been killed off much earlier. Even before the bulk of ballots started coming in, the die was cast – Democrats would maintain numeric majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

But in the 17th Legislative District, incumbent state Sen. Don Benton’s (R-Vancouver) was in the re-election fight of his political life, one that also would keep Senate Republicans within two votes of the majority. Earlier in 2012, Republicans had found the two open-minded Democrats willing to share power – Sen. Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon – in their daring 9th Order parliamentary maneuver to pass a budget. The outcome of the Benton race was critical for Democrats.

Meanwhile, Democrat Monica Stonier was running in another photo-finish race for a 17th District state House seat, one that meant absolutely nothing in terms of the balance of power in Olympia.

Where did the WEA put their money? On Stonier, of course. The WEA spent only $19,000 in a losing effort against Benton, but kicked in far more than that amount to elect Stonier to the state House from the same district, a race that had far less strategic importance.

So, history comes full circle. Before the 2013 legislative session began, Republicans and two moderate Democrats formed the Majority Coalition Caucus to have real power over the Senate process, the result of which has been a lot of conversation and legislation that make the WEA nervous.

How about those chickens coming home to roost?

Fullscreen capture 3262013 115134 AM.bmpSo, too did the WEA’s gamble in opposing Initiative 1240 – the 2012 ballot measure approved by voters that will create new public charters in Washington state – end up being a loser. The WEA was largest in-state contributor to the campaigns against I-1240, contributing a total of more than $241,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to People for Our Public Schools PAC. (For comparison, the National Education Association spent $250,000 on the losing effort.)

If support for school choice is a sign of support for broader reforms in education, the bad news for the WEA’s pressure campaign against the Rodney Tom Six worsens when one examines how I-1240 did in those officials’ districts. Initiative 1240 passed statewide by only a percentage point, but on the Tom Six’s respective turf it passed by anywhere between 7 and 13-point margins.

How does the WEA avoid a crosswind of blowback from these multiple failures? Possibly because People for Our Public Schools flagrantly violated state campaign laws by routinely not listing its top three contributors on official printed pieces like this one, this one and this one. As a great comedian once said, “Cop didn’t see it; I didn’t do it.”

Well, WEA, Sherriff Lynne Varner saw it this time. Taxpayers and especially parents should all be paying close attention to the WEA. The goal of reforming the public education system so that current and future generations of children have the opportunity to reach their full potential is at stake.