Sunday, November 02, 2008

Litzow vs. Maxwell at the PTA

The Mercer Island Legislative Team of the PTA sponsored a discussion recently between the Washington State 41st district legislative candidates, Democrat Marcie Maxwell and Republican Steve Litzow. It’s getting close to Election Day and maybe with absentee ballots the decision has already been made.  But if like me you’re planning to vote in person on Tuesday,  here’s my bottom line on the differences between the candidates:

Steve cares most about freedom: let schools, teachers, parents, and taxpayers have maximum choice and flexibility.  Marcie cares most about fairness: don’t let the “rich” districts (like Mercer Island) forget that there are less well-off places in need.  Marcie knows more details about education issues, but Steve is less beholden to vested interests and more likely to bring real change – if you think that’s necessary.

The best example of this difference is school funding.  Mercer Islanders would spend even more on our schools if we could, but Washington is one of only two states that put a maximum cap on the amount you can raise in tax levies – even if 100% of the voters in a district beg for it.  How silly is that?

Steve: would eliminate the levy lid if he could, but recognizes it’s politically difficult, so he supports a compromise that involves raising the floor on funds we get from the state.

Marcie: reminds us there are other districts out there that won’t support higher taxes for education the way we do, and it’s important not to let Mercer Island get too far ahead.

In other words, Steve wants people to be free to choose the level of funding they want, but Marcie worries that’ll lead to unfair advantages for the pro-education districts.

One nit: both candidates keep repeating the incorrect statistic that Washington scores 42nd in funding on education. That’s very old data; the actual number is 38th (as of 2006) and probably much higher by now thanks to the $2.46B added to teacher salaries in the past four years .

Both candidates say teacher strikes should be illegal, though neither gives specifics on what to do.  Steve notes that the unions seem to strike each year just before elections, and that we should expect another one two years from now, just before the next election. No suggestions for how to avoid it. Marcie repeats her union supporters’ statements about how “teachers are happiest in the classroom”  and that presumably the best way to ensure happiness is to pay them more.

But how should we pay them?  I saw a big, healthy difference:

Steve:  “I do believe it’s possible to tell the difference between good teachers and bad teachers” and the good ones should be rewarded.

Marcie: “It’s complicated”, so let’s focus on making existing teachers better, through things like National Board Certification or the Math Academy they tried in the Renton district.

Here Steve’s clearly right.  It’s ridiculous that we give the same raises to the worst 10% of teachers that we give to the top 1%.  That study people quote about National Board Certification is flawed because it didn’t distinguish between causation and causality: the certification doesn’t change the teacher. Marcie should read up on what Apple’s Steve Jobs says: today’s schools will never really improve until you fix the awful way we hire and compensate teachers.  Meanwhile, those mediocre teachers who want to keep their jobs should spend every waking minute of their day trying to ensure Marcie gets elected because she’s unlikely to propose anything new here.

Somebody asked Marcie why schools in her home district of Renton fare so poorly, and she replied with the important reminder that demographics are important: Renton is not like Mercer Island.  It’s a much bigger school district (100K students), with 44% of kids on government assisted lunch programs (in one school it’s as high as 73%).  Top-down mandates like No Child Left Behind offer little flexibility, which crushes the options for resource-constrained schools.

There is no question that Marcie is more aware of the day-to-day realities of poor districts, and that her legislative priorities are more focused on the immediate needs of the have-nots.  That’s why the Mercer Island School Board President says Steve Litzow doesn’t get it.  That may very well be true (he definitely doesn’t get it with his lame, idiotic ads implying Marcie doesn’t protect privacy—give me a break), but does it matter who “gets it” or does it matter who’s more effective?    Sure, Marcie cares about the poorest kids (so do we all) but an elected official shouldn’t be given an “A” just for effort.

One more thing: everyone blames the rising cost of education on mandates, so one question to ask is where are those mandates coming from, are they really necessary, and who is more likely to reduce them.  Marcie mentioned that we should reconsider some of those mandates (she specifically blames No Child Left Behind).  Still, it seems to me that most (all?) of the mandates come from the “fairness” people like her, not from the “freedom” people like Steve.   I don’t necessarily disagree with Marcie – I  mean, I like “fairness” too – but everything in life is a tradeoff and we can’t keep pretending that more funding is the only answer.

As for me, I’m following the lead of Surrounded by Water and voting for Steve.  Since I’m also voting for Fred Jarrett, and I know Marcie’s pretty much lockstep with Fred anyway, I think this is the best way to ensure healthy variety and flexibility in state government. 


Anonymous said...

Small correction. Renton School District has 13,751 students according to

Anonymous said...

What a great post. This sums up the race tremendously. Litzow seems like a "Jarrett" republican when Jarrett was a republican. He has my vote! Maxwell seems like more of the same that's been down in Olympia. Hard to get excited about that.