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Reading an old Dan Evans speech stirs a sense that change isn't always improvement

Occasionally we run across something from yesterday that causes a sense that change isn't necessarily always for the better. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the political realm.

 

That thought occurred to me a few days ago when I had the opportunity to read a speech by former Governor and U.S. Senator Dan Evans to the January 1995 Economic Forecast conference in Seattle.

 

It was the day after Republicans, as a result of the transformational election of 1994, assumed control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years and, with three dozen new GOP legislators, the state House in Olympia.

 

Evans, who himself had bucked a Democratic landslide in 1964 to win the first of his three terms as governor, referred, at the opening of that speech, to "day two of a new era," then joked, "Or is it the Newt era?" That was a reference, of course, to the new House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had orchestrated the overwhelming takeover of the House of Representatives by Republicans.

 

I got a copy of the speech from Neil McReynolds, then a top executive at the old Puget Sound Power & Light Co., and chair of the board of the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County, which put on the event at which Evans was keynoter.

 

McReynolds, who had been Evans' press secretary in Olympia when he and I met in the late '60s, is constantly running across decades-old documents in his files and, finding this one while we were visiting, he thought I might find the speech interesting.

 

Politics has provided several swings since that Evans' speech when Republicans were coming to power halfway through Bill Clinton's first term. But maybe the swings, either to the left or right, haven't always made things better.

 

What I found most interesting in reading Evans' talk was the reminder of him as an elected official who was impossible to pigeonhole ideologically. As governor and later as U.S. senator, he avoided ideological rigidity and found good ideas might sometimes spring from the Democrat side of the political aisle. And that dumb ideas could sometimes be offered by his fellow Republicans.

 

Thus at a time when polarized political positions characterize decision-making, reflecting on Evans, and actually many who were like him, including Washington's late Democratic Sen. Henry M. Jackson, make it obvious that politics doesn't have to require ideological polarization.

 

Before outlining in that speech a series of ideas "to propel Seattle and King County into world-class economic status," Evans blasted "talk show hosts screeching about waste in government," proponents of term limits and a balanced-budget amendment, environmental extremists, and excessive regulations that stymie growth.

 

And he also took to task the nature of campaigning. So in what could be a comment about the unfolding 2012 election rather than a reflection on 1994, Evans noted "We have just concluded the nastiest election in my memory. Virtually all campaign advertising was enormously distorted and negative."

 

"By constantly trashing our political leaders, we also breed disrespect for our own system, of government," Evans said. "The result is a new political landscape dotted with constitutional amendments and initiatives designed to protect citizens from 'evil' politicians."

 

Of two ideas whose proponents have continued to seek traction since that "new era" that Evans referred to as dawning, he told that 1995 business audience: "The balanced budget amendment is a loony idea that is meaningless until we decide how to keep a national standard set of books so we can measure balance."

 

And of the idea of term limits, Evans offered: "As a voter I am outraged by those sanctimonious term limiters who would steal from me the freedom of my vote."

 

But in addition to hitting "those talk show hosts who cater to the base emotion of people," he took to task "the politicians who blithely promise what they know they cannot deliver," and "those rigid environmentalists who will see you in court if they don't get all they seek."

 

Thus he has always been a leader in what I and many feel is an unfortunately disappearing breed, those who view ideas on their merits rather than insisting that any new idea must be vetted based on where it fits ideologically.

 

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Legislature ensures that charter schools will be governor's-race issue

The Washington Legislature ensured that the controversy over charter schools will become a focus in the state's gubernatorial campaign by specifically rejecting charters as part of any education-reform efforts in a bill that creates a handful of what will be called "collaborative schools."

 

The manner in which the legislation was conceived and approved, at the request of Gov. Christine Gregoire after she specifically warned that she would veto any bill authorizing charter schools, has "controversy" written all over it.

 

Passed in the midst of an extended session aimed at resolving the state's budget crisis, the bill is titled "collaborative schools for innovation and success pilot program." It calls for a five-year program involving six elementary schools, each of which will be operated by pairing to-be-determined school districts with colleges of education in the state.

 

The bill basically does two things that, for sure, won't make proponents of dramatic change in the state's education system very happy. It requires, basically, that all parts of the current schools infrastructure -- administrators, teachers unions and what's called "the professional education standards board" - must sign off on any innovative programs conceived for the handful of schools permitted to participate. And it ensures that no wholesale changes would be possible until the five years of testing for those few schools provided for in the bill have been fulfilled and evaluated.

 

One of those left unhappy is Rep. Eric Pettigrew, the respected African-American Democrat whose House district includes some of Seattle's at-risk neighborhoods and who had co-sponsored a bill to permit charter schools in Washington State.

 

"This bill isn't even close," Pettigrew told me in a telephone interview. "We have been doing things the same way for too long and accepting a certain failure rate and I don't think that's acceptable."

 

"Charter schools provide the flexibility to be nimble in seeking education changes," he added. "Probably the most frustrating thing about the entire experience is that discussion of what's best for the kids never seems to really conclude before it trails off into organizations that will need to be involved."

 

The comment frames the reason for controversy over charter schools in this state, one of the last nine in which charters are prohibited. Whether what's best for the kids is the unquestioned number one issue inevitably collides with many teachers and teacher advocates who will insist that even if kids' needs are the priority, what's good for teachers is also an issue. The stronger the teachers union in a state, the more that conflict comes into play.

 

The Seattle Times, in a January editorial on the bill proposed by Pettigrew and Sen. Steve Litzow, a Republican from Mercer Island, said: "Political courage is often lacking in Olympia, making Pettigrew's willingness to buck the Democratic Party's usual fidelity to the Washington Education Association all the more striking."

 

"Expect contentious debate," The Times editorial continued. "In particular, the teachers union sees charter schools as a threat. Yes, Washington state voters rejected charter-school proposals three times. But we know a lot more about these innovative public schools since the last failed measure in 2004."

 

Indicating that his "courage" isn't likely to wane in the coming months as likely Democratic gubernatorial standard-bearer Jay Inslee picks up the education ball his party has crafted for him and runs with it, Pettigrew said "if the unions or even my fellow Democrats want to come after me, fine."

 

Atty. Gen. Rob McKenna, the presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee who has promised to make education reform and funding a focal point of his campaign, says of the collaborative-schools idea "There is no evidence that they will actually work. Moreover, it will take years before we know if they do."

 

"I support trying new approaches to improve education for our children right now," he added. "And a smarter approach would be to adopt models that have a proven track record of success, like high-performing public charter schools that are working in 41 other states." 

 

McKenna says both collaborative schools and charter schools should be "tools in the toolkit" for those seeking a new education model.

 

Inslee, in a wide-ranging blueprint for education reform to create "An innovative, accountable education system: building a better future for every child and a stronger economy for Washington," called for change in most aspects of the economy that might impact education funding.

 

Thus his plan for educational reform and adequate funding calls for "reinvigorating the economy..." "Reverse the trend of healthcare inflation eating into education spending..." "Sunset corporate tax loopholes that have outlived their purpose..." and "Expand a system of quality improvement to all government agencies..."

 

Inslee says his "vision for an education system by 2020" includes that "achievement and opportunity gaps among students are eliminated."

 

An ongoing challenge for Inslee and Democrats in rejecting the idea of even having charter schools on the education-reform table is that some prominent, long-time Democrat supporters appear reluctant to get aboard.

           

Perhaps most challenging for them is Nick Hanauer, the venture capitalist and avowed "lifelong Democrat and committed progressive," who views Republican positions on social issues and taxation as "misguided," but says "McKenna is on the right track and we are not" on school reform.

 

"We may be headed in the right direction, but we aren't in the right lane," Hanauer told the head of the state teachers' union in a February e-mail exchange. "It is not classroom teachers who are afraid of change and innovation, it is their union." 

 

While charter schools are anathema to teachers' unions, they have gathered supporters from among some of those who toil in the classrooms, including Erin Gustafson, who grew up on Mercer Island but began her teaching career in one of California's poverty pockets.

 

"My path to supporting charters began 16 years ago when I taught fifth grade at a high-poverty school in Vallejo," Gustason told me. "I became disillusioned with the poor teaching, union rules that protected that, and the restrictions of operating in a large system."

 

Gustafson, now married and the mother of children 9 and 7 and a substitute teacher, became involved in a new teacher-created education-reform non-profit called Teachers United, born a year ago with the goal of "giving teachers a voice in policy debates."

 

 She is now policy director for the group, which advocated last session for charter schools as one of the choices that need to be available in Washington State. She was among teachers from the organization who testified before the legislature's education committees on behalf of charter schools.

 

"After doing a lot of research and visiting several public charter schools in California, I have come to believe that successful public charters are an effective way of closing the achievement gap," she said. "We took teachers who were interested to visit high-performance charters across the country and, for those teachers, seeing was believing so they decided to advocate for charters."

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