Sunday, September 22, 2013

Wealthy Folks Try to Take Over the Seattle School Board, Again.

It is something about human nature.  

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.
The truth is that objective evidence (which I have discussed in previous blogs) demonstrates that their "reforms" are counterproductive and are undermining the student performance they long for.   Shakespeare would do well with such a combination of tragedy and irony.
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?


Sue Peters

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).

13 comments:

Kate Martin said...

Thank you for your education advocacy, Cliff. It's very important how you point out and challenge the spin that Suzanne Estey's campaign is trying to put out there about a massively dysfunctional school board, etc. It seems Michael DeBell wants to leave the board and take the district down with him. Your facts do a nice job countering that as facts always do.

ktkeller said...

Thank you!! This ought to be an obvious choice, but the facts and history help immensely. Not all Democratic Party organizations are buying what Estey has to sell, by the way. One nit -- Kate ran with that reform effort, although she lost. And, Smith-Blum's likely replacement is a big question mark, but there are some saying he is with the corp ed group. So there is always more work to do.

Michelle Ireton said...

I don't know much about Cliff's candidate - she sounds worthy of my vote, if she were running against someone else. I've known Suzanne Dale Estey for many years and he's taking shots at her that aren't completely fair, in my opinion. While the District's financial situation is better (thank goodness), other problems have certainly cropped up. There were 29 kids in my son's kindergarten class last year. And 29 again in 1st grade. That is too many kids for one teacher. I specificaly asked Suzanne about charter schools and class size last week and she was against the first and for reducing the second. Receiving large donations doesn't mean she won't represent the average parent in Seattle and keep our schools on an improving track.

chunga said...

Also note that Suzanne has served on the Seattle Business Climate Coalition and the Alki Foundation Board (per http://rentonwa.gov/news/default.aspx?id=6394). The latter group was morphed into Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (per http://www.seattlemet.com/news-and-profiles/publicola/articles/alki-foundation-to-dissolve), which is the group behind "Great Seattle Schools", the group that put out hit-piece flyers against Sue Peters. I find it very disingenuous that Suzanne would claim she had no knowledge of it. She may have technically had no knowledge of the specific flyer, but it seems highly likely given her connections that she knew they would be doing something like this.

Kenna Wickman said...

These rich want to run the schools like a business - specifically Lehman Brothers. Hoping they will collapse and so their property tax bills won't have to pay for any school. They could care less if the kids are receiving any education. And if the kids start running rampant on the streets and start committing crimes, there are many for profit jails to jail them. Maximizing profits for themselves and their shareholders - this is their only motivation.

chunga said...

Michelle - certainly her contributors shouldn't be the only criteria used to judge SDE. But, it is worth considering. Prior board members said they were against charters too. One of them, Steve S, conveniently switched positions and now chairs the state charter commission. We also saw how prior and current board members actions seemed too closely aligned with special interests who also happened to be their largest contributors (such as approving TFA contract). SDE has bragged about her connections that enable her to raise money (watch the 36th district interview). This makes her seem disingenuous when she said at the 37th district meeting that she didn't know who her top contributors were.
Besides, why does she need to raise so much money and how did she know she could get it? Lower budget campaigns did quite well in the last election. It's no secret that her contributors/backers want to see a more business friendly board. How did she convince them to give her so much money? Perhaps she was a compromise candidate for them.

But, even if we put aside this issue, SDE clearly lacks knowledge and background in education compared to Sue Peters. She has essentially no track record prior to her campaign on education issues. Saying she opposes charters and is for smaller class sizes is easy to do in the campaign (especially when i-1240 is over). In fact, those positions are probably prerequisites to be considered viable in Seattle. But, without any real record on education, we don't really know what her positions will be in the heat of tense issues. Sue Peters, on the other hand, has almost a decade of experience on education including publishing articles and involvement with the district. We can see that she opposed school closings, has supported stronger curriculum, supported better teacher evaluation and better district/teacher relations, that she helped select a strong superintendent (and pushed the board to hold the prior one accountable), and pushed the district to more authentically engage parents. Her stellar track record makes it emphatically clear she will be representing students, parents, teachers and the community. With SDE, we just don't know.

Joseph Rockne said...

Michelle,

What you say might be true. But remember, the school board will have little to no impact on classroom headcounts; that's an issue that will be driven by increasing enrollment and whether or not the state meets its constitutional burden and adequately funds education.

While I certainly don't like the idea of Ms. Estey's campaign being funded by wealthy individuals that have no children in the schools and do not live in our city, I have an even greater problem when she fails to acknowledge their existence.

During a recent candidate forum she was asked to name her top funders. She said she didn't know, but she knew her parents donated to her campaign. She also remembered that a senior citizen gave her seven dollars.

Are we to believe that she was unaware that one of the richest people in the world (Steve Ballmer) gave the maximum amount to her campaign?

When she started her campaign she proudly claimed she would raise $100,000 to $150,000. She said she was not afraid of "the ask."

Yet when asked about the funders, she was afraid of "the tell." Really?

Finally, the problem with her campaign is that it represents the worst in a new paradigm; school board campaigns fueled by large sums of money and driven by political consultants and polls.

You may like Ms. Estey and she might be a decent school board member, but her campaign makes it impossible to envision future candidates coming forward unless they have the political and business connections necessary to win.

We should encourage an environment that leads to more candidates willing to come forward to run for these difficult positions.

Ms. Estey's campaign does the opposite.

Patrick said...

Michelle, my child's kindergarten, 7 years ago now, had 31 kids. No public school parents or teachers want classes that big, so why are there no prospects of reducing them in the future? The anti-teacher's-union folks. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, through the many organizations they support, promote the idea that "teacher quality" is more important than class size or students' home life. The state that actually funds the public schools and funds them at a low level. When the children of most of these folks go to school, they go to private schools with class sizes in the teens.

Sysiphus said...

Thanks for the heads up, Cliff. Sounds like we'd better get involved.

Joseph Rockne said...

Patrick,

Michele, and Ms. Estey, are relatively new to this. If they had spent the last ten years in the trenches of education reform they would know that the Gates et. al. crowd is behind Estey.

They aren't for smaller classes. They are for more testing, computers and data over teachers and support, and charter schools. They oppose local school board control (in favor of Common Core and mayoral takeovers).

Like it or not, Ms. Estey is their candidate.

She lambasts her potential future colleagues by labeling them as "dysfunctional" and runs with the backing of those "fed up" with the past two years.

No, Estey most certainly won't lower class sizes. If she is true to her supporters they will increase, along with the central administration's budget for tests and data collection.

dbostrom said...

I don't follow the upper echelons but my personal experience with SPS faculty as a volunteer with the Nathan Hale FRC team makes me entirely fed up with the entire "war on teachers" approach espoused by outsiders.

We get --incredible-- value for our money from SPS faculty, because (of course, duh) the faculty are not motivated by money, but by their love for helping to grow happy citizens in a well-functioning civil society.

It's notable that "reformers" are always all about money, one way or another. Somebody's getting too much, somebody else is having to pay too much. Education isn't about money; education is not a profit-center and nor is it a zero-sum game.

When you're used to working with hammers, everything looks like a nail. People who spend their lives focused on balance sheets don't have a healthy perspective when it comes to the basic services provided by government, such as education.

dbostrom said...

I don't follow the upper echelons but my personal experience with SPS faculty as a volunteer with the Nathan Hale FRC team makes me entirely fed up with the entire "war on teachers" approach espoused by outsiders.

We get --incredible-- value for our money from SPS faculty, because (of course, duh) the faculty are not motivated by money, but by their love for helping to grow happy citizens in a well-functioning civil society.

It's notable that "reformers" are always all about money, one way or another. Somebody's getting too much, somebody else is having to pay too much. Education isn't about money; education is not a profit-center and nor is it a zero-sum game.

When you're used to working with hammers, everything looks like a nail. People who spend their lives focused on balance sheets don't have a healthy perspective when it comes to the basic services provided by government, such as education.

Toby Thaler said...

Can you please explain why you think David Brewster is a promoter of 1%ers taking over the Seattle School Board? ("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.")

I found the page from which you pulled the quote ""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 in context it does not appear to me to indicate Brewster supports the so-called "reformers." (source: http://crosscut.com/2011/12/19/seattle/21697/Two-big-shockers-for-Seattle-schools-cops/?page=single