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Originally published June 29, 2010 at 3:34 PM | Page modified June 29, 2010 at 5:46 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Summertime but Seattle Public Schools and its teachers union won't rest easy

Contract talks between Seattle Public Schools and its teachers union ought to feature less Sturm und Drang and more collaboration around stark new economic realities.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

At a recent Seattle Public Schools teachers-union meeting, a no-confidence vote on Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson was shelved, union president Olga Addae said, in order to see how this summer's contract negotiations turn out.

If the Seattle Education Association is betting on a tactic of tying the superintendent's fate to labor talks as a way of gaining the upper hand, they are stuck in a pre-recession time warp.

Casting a cloud above the negotiating table is the latest state economic forecast showing an arduous climb out of the recession. By 2013, Goodloe-Johnson may be able to afford to buy the union's affection, but right now that check would bounce.

No way should teachers expect a repeat of the 9-to-10-percent raises received two years ago at the tail end of a five-year boost pushing Seattle salaries near the top statewide. Teachers do a yeoman's job and compensation is appropriately a key tenet of education reform. But current economic realities prevail.

Union saber rattling isn't just about money. They are shots across the bow in the ongoing battle to shape the future of public schools. Educators have talked for years about better ways to rate and pay teachers and transform struggling schools. Now they're arguing about who will control the changes.

Look, I belong to a union. I get that the union's job is to protect jobs. Everything else, including visions of educational rigor and equality as part of education reform, is secondary.

But unions risk alienating the public by flailing at any idea or support that hints at a reform agenda. Lately, they have trained their ire on businesses and philanthropies, accusing the twin engines of "corporatizing" education. The way I see it, these groups have long been urged to be part of the solution for education and a new breed of philanthropists and corporate leaders are rightly following their money through the schoolhouse door and expecting a role improving education.

The rhetoric may intensify next week as the American Federation of Teachers holds its annual convention in Seattle. The AFT's presence in this state is small — 4,500 K-12 and university educators, a fraction of the number belonging to the 3.2 million-strong National Education Association.

The AFT hasn't been as hostile to reform as the NEA. It is lukewarm on the $4.5 billion Race to the Top reform push and supports using student test scores to help gauge teacher performance.

Still, whether for street cred or a sign the union isn't ready to come in from the cold, AFT President Randi Weingarten recently criticized "self-identified reformers who spend little or no time in classrooms." Not a helpful thing to say when parents, most of whom aren't trained to teach, are trying to step up and do their part crafting public schools for the 21st century.

Some of the criticism reeks of two-faced tactics. Well-heeled supporters of reform are dismissed as members of "the billionaire club." Yet, while perusing AFT's website I spied a $3.3 million school innovation fund paid for by "club" members at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation. Credibility is lost when you bite the hand you feed from.

If only the country's two teachers unions, which together purport to speak for more than 4 million teachers, could stop the rhetoric. Especially because it has lost its sting.

Parents who approve funding levies by wide margins year after year and school board members who craft budgets that stretch and strain to preserve teacher jobs aren't interested in being told their support of education reform is disrespectful to teachers. No one believes that hype anymore.

The AFT could set the tone next week by using Seattle to announce a détente in the battle and a launch of efforts to help craft reform.

We have a confluence of favorable events: unprecedented federal money, a groundswell of interest and support from families and a new generation of teachers who don't fear a future that includes change. If all of these groups started moving in the same direction, I'm guessing we'd move rather quickly from talking about improving public education to reaping the benefits.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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