OLYMPIA — On a Wednesday night in late February, the state House Education Committee chairwoman met with Lucinda Young and James Regan over dinner at Gardner’s Seafood & Pasta Restaurant.
Young and Regan are two of the state teachers union’s top lobbyists, each paid more than $100 per hour to persuade lawmakers to adopt policies favored by the union, the Washington Education Association (WEA).
In a scene that is common in Olympia, the lobbyists picked up the tab — $228 in all, according to documents filed with the Public Disclosure Commission.
The cost of that dinner with state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the WEA has spent trying to influence a legislative session marked by battles over education policy and funding.
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The teachers union spent $380,941 on lobbying in the first three months of 2013 — more than twice as much as the next-highest lobbying organization, SEIU Healthcare 775 NW, and far more than every other K-12 education group combined, according to disclosure documents.
Associations of state school administrators and school principals spent about $48,000 and $21,000, respectively. A union of non-teacher school employees spent nearly $40,000. And three advocacy groups pushing for policy changes opposed by the WEA each spent about $25,000 or less.
The WEA’s efforts, which come as lawmakers are debating how to respond to a January 2012 state Supreme Court order to spend more on K-12 education, mark a return to the group’s higher spending of several years ago.
From 2006-09, the union’s first-quarter lobbying spending reached more than $400,000 each year as the Legislature worked to define basic education paid for by the state and then made budget cuts due to the recession.
Its spending dropped during the same period for the next three years.
The WEA — with 82,000 members — has long been one of the biggest spenders on lobbying in Olympia. WEA spokesman Rich Wood said it’s good that teachers are a part of education-policy discussions.
“It stands to reason that the educators in the classroom, who work with our kids in the classroom, should have a voice in the decisions that are being made that affect them and their students,” said Wood, emphasizing the group lobbies for the interests of both teachers and students.
Wood added the union is proud of its advocacy and transparent about its donors and spending.
The WEA’s January-March 2013 total included some $119,000 in salaries for a half-dozen lobbyists; $175,000 on radio advertisements meant to affect pending legislation; and $13,000 to bring teachers to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers.
The union also spent $10,000 to doorbell homes in the districts of state Sens. Rodney Tom and Steve Hobbs. The two Democrats have earned the union’s ire by supporting bills to grade schools A through F; create a state-run district for the lowest-performing schools; and give principals more say in personnel decisions.
April expense reports are due May 15. The group also spent significantly last month, including on a new radio ad and costs related to an even larger rally on the Capitol steps the day before the regular legislative session ended.
The union’s message has been that lawmakers should reject proposed major policy changes, comply with the court order by adding more teachers to reduce class sizes, and fund voter-approved cost-of-living pay raises for teachers, which have been suspended for the past four years.
Mixed results for union
The WEA’s results have been mixed.
Separate budget proposals from Gov. Jay Inslee, the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-run Senate all add hundreds of millions of dollars to K-12 education.
But only the House budget allocates significant money to class-size reduction, and none of the budgets fund the pay raises.
On the other hand, House Democratic lawmakers have shot down nearly all of the policy bills, which mostly Republican supporters said would add accountability but the WEA said wouldn’t do any good and in some cases would restrict teacher bargaining and due-process rights.
Most of the bills passed through the Senate but died in Santos’ House Education Committee.
Twelve of the 21 lawmakers on that committee received political donations from the WEA last year, many at the maximum level of $1,800. And two of the freshman lawmakers — committee vice chair Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver; and Steve Bergquist, D-Renton — are public-school teachers and members of the union.
Wood, the union spokesman, said, “It’s great that we have working educators in the Legislature for the first time in quite a long time.”
State House Counsel Tim Sekerak said it’s not a conflict of interest.
“The issue of a member having a prior commitment or outside interest which might influence their action or judgment is common in citizen legislatures,” Sekerak said.
The WEA has an ally in the governor’s office, too: Inslee’s interim education adviser, Lynn Macdonald, served as a spokeswoman for WEA’s Tacoma chapter when it went on strike in 2011.
The WEA also donated $1 million to a political action committee that supported Inslee’s election last year.
Who benefits from efforts?
To some Republicans, that all adds up to a political organization that can steer state government toward policies that help teachers, not schools.
“They represent teachers’ interests — their pay and their benefits and their working conditions,” said Cathy Dahlquist, of Enumclaw, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee. “That’s who they’re there to advocate for, and they do a good job of that, but it doesn’t necessarily mean better results for kids.”
But Democrats and some education groups say the WEA is fighting generally for public education, which should be the state’s priority.
“Whose voice would be there for the 1 million kids in our public schools if it wasn’t for the Washington Education Association?” said state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee and a longtime union ally.
McAuliffe, D-Bothell, said other education interest groups also spend plenty, mostly around election time.
McAuliffe herself faced $255,000 in attack ads last year from Stand for Children, a union adversary that seeks to “add accountability” to public education.
She benefited from $127,000 in WEA independent expenditures.
The union won that election battle, but it doesn’t always win in the Legislature.
In the past couple of years, lawmakers have enacted several laws over WEA opposition, including changes to teacher evaluations that may make it easier to fire teachers who get low marks.
With lawmakers set to reconvene May 13 for a special session, what happens this year is still up in the air, said Lisa Macfarlane, who founded the advocacy group League of Education Voters.
“They (WEA) have an enormous influence, but the session isn’t over so I don’t want to speculate on how effective they were or are because we don’t know,” Macfarlane said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 360-236-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal