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Voting began last week in an election for the leadership of the Seattle teachers union that has drawn unprecedented outside attention.

Turnout is expected to be high among the Seattle Education Association’s 5,000 teachers, counselors, therapists, instructional assistants, office staff and substitutes.

Garfield High School history teacher Jesse Hagopian is challenging incumbent Jonathan Knapp, an auto-shop teacher who is seeking a second two-year term as president.

Knapp, 56, is known for seeking common ground among ideological opponents to create more union-friendly alternatives to ideas pushed by the union’s adversaries.

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Hagopian, 35, gained a national reputation after leading a testing boycott last year that inspired teachers around the country to voice their concerns that students were being harmed, not helped, by excessive testing.

Both want to make the SEA a powerful voice in education-policy debates and stand up for teachers tired of being blamed by some reform advocates for much of what troubles struggling schools.

Seattle’s children, parents, taxpayers and politicians all have a stake in those debates, too, and while they don’t get to vote for the next SEA president, some are taking sides in a way that makes this election a first in local labor politics.

Seattle City Council members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant have endorsed Hagopian, as well as education bloggers such as Melissa Westbrook and other parent and community activists.

Sue Peters, who was elected to the Seattle School Board last November, also endorsed Hagopian.

Those endorsements and fundraisers make Hagopian’s campaign look more like a run for public office than the typical bid for union leadership.

That community support could either fuel Hagopian’s effort to unseat an incumbent or — if union members perceive Hagopian has invited outside meddling in the union’s private business — backfire.

Knapp, who has not sought outside endorsements, says he cares more about the membership’s opinion than the approval of people who aren’t in the union.

“Jesse’s approach is ‘take it to the streets,’ and our approach is, take it to the members,” Knapp said.

David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, called both candidates “committed trade unionists who are trying to do the best for their organization.”

But Freiboth said he’s not taking sides — and he doesn’t think anyone else outside the teachers union should, either.

“This is the first I’ve heard of where political leaders have actually gotten into union leadership politics,” Freiboth said. “It’s pretty unprecedented and it’s pretty troubling.”

Hagopian said the endorsements, inspired by his role in the testing boycott, show the union’s members that he’s capable of uniting teachers, parents and community groups, which he believes is critical for the union’s survival.

“We’re in the middle of the biggest revolt against standardized testing in U.S. history, and that is unprecedented and I think that has led to a somewhat different kind of union election,” Hagopian said.

National exposure

Peters and Hagopian began working together as activists in 2008 to oppose school closures and did so again during last year’s boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests in Seattle, before Peters was elected to the board in November.

Hagopian became the public voice of the revolt, which made national headlines and ended last May when the district allowed high schools to stop using the MAP test.

That success catapulted Hagopian into the national debate over issues such as the use of untrained teachers in the nation’s urban schools. It’s a subject he knows first hand, having started his career with Teach for America (TFA), an AmeriCorps agency that places recent college graduates without teaching credentials in struggling schools.

Hagopian’s opinion of TFA later soured, and he earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Washington, eventually becoming a teacher at Garfield, his alma mater.

He’s traveled around the country in the past year, speaking to various teacher and student groups, and he was featured on NBC’s Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall last October.

He is one of the founding members of Social Equality Educators, a group within the union that supports progressive values and is backing his campaign.

“Because he is somewhat nationally known, it brings a spotlight on this race that we might not have seen in the past,” said Peters, who says she is endorsing Hagopian not in her role as a School Board member but as an individual.

It’s a distinction some say means little.

“It is a potential conflict of interest, as the board member then must work with the union for contract negotiation as well as personnel issues such as a teacher dismissal,” said Thomas Alsbury, a professor of Seattle Pacific University who has researched school-board leadership issues.

The union and the district will negotiate a new contract in 2015.

Both Peters and Hagopian say they wouldn’t let their personal relationship interfere with their duties as elected leaders should Hagopian win.

“What that means is that we’re not always going to agree on issues, but we’re going to start from a place of respect,” Peters said.

Candidates share goals

The candidates generally share many of the same goals for the union, but disagree on how to accomplish them.

For Knapp, the Peters endorsement is one of the clear differences between him and Hagopian.

“I’m happy when our employers ask for our endorsement, but I would never ask for my employer’s endorsement. Ever,” Knapp said, noting the union sometimes has to confront the School Board on issues.

Knapp led a highly organized effort this spring, for example, that got the district to reverse some $4 million in proposed funding cuts that would have resulted in layoffs.

The union researched the district’s finances, concluded the cuts were unnecessary, and organized members to vote against them.

The district could have overruled the union but only after a cumbersome mediation process.

“We had 40 schools voting no,” Knapp said. “We had about another 25 to 30 that were poised to vote no and the district decided it was better to sit down and talk to us about this.”

But Knapp also believes collaboration often is more effective than confrontation.

The best example of that approach is the Seattle Teacher Residency program — an alternative to Teach for America launched last fall that provides one-year paid apprenticeships that confer a Master of Teaching degree from the University of Washington.

Knapp — who in 2011 organized delegates at the National Education Association’s national assembly in Chicago to publicly oppose TFA — made the Seattle residency program a national model because it includes the union as an equal partner.

But that required Knapp to find common cause with the primary funder, the Alliance for Education, which has jousted with the union on other issues.

Substitute teacher Chris Eide gives Knapp credit for keeping the peace among ideological rivals within the union, too.

Eide is the executive director of Teachers United, a statewide group that includes Seattle teachers who generally are more supportive of charter schools and the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation than the union’s official positions on those issues.

“Jonathan has been open to at least listening to those perspectives and considering the issues that mean a lot to teachers who typically are not involved in the union,” Eide said.

Voting ends May 7.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

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