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Originally published September 16, 2012 at 4:00 PM | Page modified September 17, 2012 at 6:57 AM

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Lessons from the Chicago teachers strike for Washington state

Teachers' strikes are going to increasingly become less about money and more about divisions between organized labor and education reformers.

Seattle Times Editorial

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Chicago is a long way from Seattle and the West Coast but lessons from the labor dispute transcend geography.

The biggest lesson is that teacher labor disagreements, historically about pay and working conditions, are going to evolve -- as the one in Chicago did -- to include disputes about the pros and cons of specific education reforms.

That's too bad because reasonable reforms, such as stronger teacher evaluations and innovation through public charter schools, transcend partisan politics. These are smart ideas that are not going away.

Yet the reforms are at the heart of growing division in the Democratic tent that includes labor interests and supporters of education reform.

Stand for Children, a pro-reform advocacy group here in Washington, made a splash when it endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna over Democrat Jay Inslee. The group endorsed incumbent Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire four years ago and has tended to endorse more Democratic candidates than Republicans.

Recently, the respected League of Education Voters chose not to back either gubernatorial candidate because neither had a plausible funding plan.

But the league did note that McKenna has a reform plan that is "detailed, pro-active and places an emphasis on early learning, a proven strategy to close the achievement gap." The pro-education reform group also credited McKenna's emphasis on career and college training.

By contrast, Inslee has struggled for independence from some of his campaign's key backers, teachers unions. Inslee supported recent legislation for tougher teacher evaluations. His opposition to charter schools disappointed many Democratic-leaning education reformers.

In the last session of the state Legislature, bipartisan alliances built around education reform pushed through a teacher evaluation bill and some fiscal accountability on health benefits for school employees.

Expect more crossing of the political aisle as a new generation of Democrats, starting at the top with President Obama but including mayors, governors and Democrats in our backyard are forced to deal with budget realities and a public's perception that our schools are not doing as well as they need to be doing.

"It's hard for elected Democrats to ask taxpayers to put more money into education if they are not simultaneously offering ways to reform the system," says Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a national organization with a chapter in Washington state.

Education must evolve and adapt. The necessary reforms are full of complicated, emotional issues about kids, their futures and the needs of our economy. These are things to work out across the table, not across a picket line.

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