An individual does fabulously well in some endeavor, often gaining great wealth and power, and they assume their competencies extend to other areas. Like education. And as I will show, a bunch of wealthy folks are determined to ensure that the Seattle School Board follows their "corporate-ed" ideas.
A critical race is now occurring for an opening in the Seattle School Board. On one hand there is Suzanne Estey, with very little experience in Seattle School affairs, but enjoying the deep support of the ultra wealthy and powerful interests. On the other, there is Sue Peters, with a decade-long record of working in Seattle Public Schools, a stellar background in pushing for better math curriculum, a record of independence, and grass roots financial support. For reasons described below, I am strongly supporting Sue Peters, with whom I have worked for several years.
But before we talk about the candidates, let's examine why this race is so critical and why the rich folks are willing to invest huge sums in improving Estey's chances.
The Seattle School board is immensely better today than in the past. A few years ago, there seemed to be one financial scandal after another. The Superintendent (Marie Goodloe Johnson) and the Chief Financial Officer were forced to resign. Student performance was stagnating, particularly in mathematics and science. The School Board was pretty much of a rubber stamp for a deficient administration, performing little real oversight. The Board was also making poor, uninformed decisions, like closing down schools that would be acutely needed in a few years. And the new superintendent Susan Enfield was supporting bad ("reform" ) math, heavy testing and constraints on teachers, incompetent administrators, and the firing of popular principals.
Two independent, energetic individuals, Sharon Peaslee and Marty McLaren, ran for school board against the stay-the-course incumbents, Peter Maier and Steve Sundquist, both of whom were supported by the rich folks and the Seattle Times. To the dismay of the establishment, the citizens of Seattle had a different view from theirs: Peaslee and McLaren won, and a new activist, inquiring majority was formed: Sharon Peaslee, Marty McLaren, Kay Smith Blum, and Betty Patu.
Things started to change. Have you noticed that there are few new financial scandals? That better decisions are being made in important areas such as adding new schools and transportation? That schools are being given the opportunity to use the best books for their students rather than being forced to use the district choice? A problematic, ideological superintendent Susan Enfield resigned when she saw the independent, questioning new board. And a competent, non-ideological, quiet administrator, Jose Banda, was selected to run the district. Scores have begun to rise and the there has been a surge of new students into the district.
The Seattle School Board Today
But the powerful interests were very unhappy that their candidates had lost, as had their control of the district. These interests included some very wealthy individuals, including eastside folks from the high-tech industries, the Blethen family that controls the Seattle Times, the Gates Foundation, and local entrepreneur and Crosscut publisher David Brewster. Brewster was explicit what would happen during the next school board race.
"Seattle School Board races have to be treated like Seattle City Council races, complete with consultants, polls, and a budget of several hundred thousand dollars"
And David Brewster was very honest; this is exactly what he and his fellows are doing this time around. They are attempting to use massive resources to get their way.
But what are these moneyed interests trying to accomplish? The sad thing is that many of them mean well, but have an agenda that actually is very harmful to Seattle (and other) students. They are trying to extrapolate the approaches of the business world to education. Many call this "corporate ed" and they are pushing some key "reforms":
- That schools should be run like businesses.
- They see schools as assembly lines. The workers (teachers) need to be carefully monitored, with their jobs dependent on sufficient productivity as measured by "objective" tests given to their students.
- The believe in competition, and see Charter Schools as a way to get it.
- They have little faith in teacher training and are supporters of Teach For America, a program where graduates of elite colleges are thrown into teaching after a few weeks of training.
- They believe in "reform" math education, also known as fuzzy math, where students figure out things for themselves rather than are taught proven math algorithms, use calculators in early grades, and explaining how they got an answer is more important than being correct.
This year board member Michael DeBell is stepping down and either Sue Peters or Suzanne Estey will take his place. Sue Peters will be an independent voice and will allow the maintenance of a four person majority moving the district in the right direction. Suzanne Estey will vote with the interests of the rich folks in mind. How do I know this?
You can start by following the money. The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission provides information on the origin of campaign donations. Let's take a look at Suzanne Estey's. So far she has received $79,000, which is huge for a school board race. Take a look at the biggest donors. Top of the list, Steve Ballmer, head of Microsoft, and his wife. Jeanne Nordstrom of the Nordstrom family. The Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy is the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Matt Griffin is wealthy local developer and Christopher Larson is a retired Microsoft investor and part owner of the Mariners. Evelyne Rozner is Matt Griffin's wife. Jeffrey Rakes is Chief Executive Officer of the Gates Foundation. I could go on, but you get the message: a lot of very rich individuals are financing Estey.
In contrast, Sue Peter's has received only $17,000 in contributions. You will note she got far fewer of the $900 maximum donations and that her contributions were from a more varied group, including teachers and current school board members.
These rich folks are not content to limit their contributions to the $ 900 individual limit; they are used to getting their way with things. Several of them set up a PAC (independent expenditure group) to run advertisements for Estey, and some of these advertisements have been in the form of attack ads, with little factual foundation and even outright untruths. Specifically, Matt Griffin, Christopher Larson and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce created a PAC (Great Seattle Schools) they funded with over $30,000, and this group recently sent out a hit piece brochure on Sue Peters. Publicola did a story on this troubling activity and documented the deliberate misinformation of the mailing (see below for example):
Several of Estey's contributors were big supporters of I-1240, the Charter School Initiative. In a recent debate, Suzanne Estey claimed she had no idea who the big contributors were to her campaign (proof on this video at 10:30 into it). Hard to believe.
Now let's consider the candidates.
Sue Peters has an extraordinary background for the Seattle School Board. She is one of the founders of the popular Seattle Education Blog, which has been analyzing district policy for years. She is a co-founder of the Seattle Math Coalition and a founding member of Parents Across America, a national education policy organization. She was a member of the district's Superintendent Search Community Focus Group and the Strategic Plan Stakeholder Task force, and has extensively volunteered in the Seattle Schools over the past decade.
Sue is a journalist by training (masters in Journalism from Stanford), with a bachelor's degree in Literature/Writing and advanced-level French certificates from the University of Paris. She has extensive endorsements by most of the Democratic organizations in the city, the Stranger, many labor groups, the King County Democrats, and four of the current school members (the current majority). Well known educational historian and author Diane Ravitch (who will be in Seattle on Thursday to give a talk at Kane Hall) is a strong supporter as is Melissa Westbrook at the Seattle Schools Community Blog. Sue has had two children in the Seattle Schools during the past nine years.
In contrast, Suzanne Estey has a very thin educational background, apparently limited to tutoring in her son's classroom this year. She has a master's in public administration and owns a business, Dale Estey Partnerships, Strategy & Results, a government relations and economic/business development consulting firm, so her corporate/business approach undoubtedly comes from her personal experience. She is a member of the Renton Chamber of Commerce, the King County Economic Council, and the Friends of Renton Schools. She is endorsed by the Seattle Times, which is a strong supporter of corporate-ed approaches. If you want to do the right thing in an education vote, doing exactly opposite of the Seattle Times recommendation is almost guaranteed to be the right call. Suzanne Estey keeps on pushing that the current school board is dysfunctional and that is why she is running. Perhaps dysfunctional to her wealthy and powerful supporters, but actually making real progress if one examines what is going on. Estey has the money to hire expensive consultants (ARGO Strategies and NW Passage Consulting), who will surely use their massive financial resources for a heavy advertising campaign against Sue during the next month.
If Peter's wins, the progressive majority will continue making improvements (including new and better math textbooks). If Estey wins the corporate-ed crowd will take over again.
The voters of Seattle have a real and important choice. My vote will be to support Sue Peters (her website is here).