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Addicted to the safety of incrementalism

October 13, 2012

A democratic republic doesn’t function without a virtual unanimous consensus for political incrementalism. Our nation certainly would not exist without our founders’ fanatical embrace of the concept. And yet, in a most narrow way, after four years as a state legislator in a small pond, I can’t help but find myself reflecting broadly upon the inestimable bliss of incrementalism that such a political agreement demands.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a political retreat away from Rene Descartes’ old fashioned rationalism itself, and I’m certainly not proposing a lurching toward the extremes, but I am merely suggesting that perhaps, in a small and insignificant way, we as a state and as a larger society might have become so blindly attached to the idea of incrementalism that we rarely even consider the implications.

And I am convinced that there are, indeed, implications.

Every aspect of state government is by its very nature designed to ensure that big, bold, almost revolutionary ideas (in the positive sense that any state-level decisions are revolutionary) are clipped, defeated or at least reduced so dramatically that any meaningful threat of systems change is eliminated.

As a nation it almost goes without saying that incrementalism is healthy, safe and structured for our way of life. Fortunately, Congress or our state legislature couldn’t get swept away by a radical fad, pass sweeping legislation that radically alters our nation’s way of functioning if it tried.

Examples abound throughout the world and certainly history when the absence of incrementalism caused terror and abject failure. I wouldn’t want to experience life in that environment. At another level, positive examples, however, where incrementalism relative to the challenges of the day were not considered the only strategy do exist. One might site the economic, social, political and cultural reforms and adaptions of South Korea or Israel from their post-war to present environments.

Here at home, at the state level where it’s safe, I find myself wondering whether we haven’t taken our incrementalist-driven philosophical infrastruture to such an unparalleled degree that we have forgotten how to even think big.

One of my favorite quotes remains Thomas Jefferson’s: “What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

In Seattle we celebrate with tongue-in-cheek humor the “Seattle Process” that commands a belief that everyone should have their voice heard. It works relatively well and ensures in most cases that our state’s quality of life is protected from aggressive, radical proposals that we would come to regret in years to come.

But after four years I’m more convinced than ever that in our state’s political safety net that is particularly attracted to incrementalism we have lost a certain passion for a good, old fashioned state-level revolution.

Most of the candidates for statewide office this year have chosen to systematically retreat into a ‘small ball’ game where they emphasize the tactics of small policy issues. Who is tougher on taxes, tougher on the bureaucracy, a better small ball player? What about big ideas, big dreams, big visions with big plans for action? That does not, of course, mean big government it means big thinking.

In so many areas we are slipping as a state in terms of the quality of our education, health care, transportation, environment and more. It’s time to embrace a bolder approach.

Washington should be in the top five in the nation in the quality of our education system, public infrastructure, business environment, innovation support, environmental health and quality of life. We should demand that campaigns reach toward bold goals with real plans that the public can understand, respect and embrace. A real campaign of ideas would be about how to reach those stars.

Achieving that level of innovation is a long haul when you’re addicted to the safety of incrementalism.

We are so much more than what we’ve become.

Your partner in service,


19 Comments leave one →
  1. Concerned Parent in Queen Anne permalink
    October 14, 2012 8:56 pm

    Okay, Reuven. Can you be specific? For someone who has written a column that is wordy, I”m trying to understand the point.

    What are you advocating? What “revolution” do you think we need in this state?

    Is this a “subtle”, backhanded way for you to endorse the radical and deceptive Initiative 1240—bringing Privatization to our public schools?

    If not, then tell us how you’re planning to vote on I-1240? Are you planning to skip that part of the ballot? If not, then tell us how you’re going to vote.

    We deserve no less from the person we’ve entrusted with this important office.

    Are you with your constituents, or are you with “Stand For Children”, the conservative, pro-privatization group that endorsed you, Rob McKenna, and other Republican and conservative candidates?

    Which side are you on, Reuven? You can’t have it both ways.

    Please show us some respect, and stop ducking this critical issue. Where do you stand on I-1240?

  2. October 15, 2012 12:59 pm

    Apologies to you others who have been asking this question: With four children in four different schools, full time work in the software industry and a side job serving in the Legislature (oh, and running for office), I don’t always get to the 100-plus emails a day. As you likely know all last week was curricula nights, so I have been particularly distracted.

    Like a lot of folks I am genuinely and sincerely conflicted on the initiative.

    The research I’ve reviewed shows that KIPP and other top notch charter schools are fantastic options and really open the door to creative learning (mostly through emphasis on attendance, more instructional time, wrap around services). I have a friend in DC who has had an amazing personal experience. Diane Ravitch has spoken positively about KIPP.

    I support the idea of public, non profit charters based on this impressive example and model. The notion that 40 schools opens the door to that conversation is positive, in my view.

    The sentiment among teachers of the downside is, however, troubling to me. I’m distressed by the anxiety it raises among teachers who want and deserve our support and feel charters detract from that assistance. With so much pressure on teachers around evaluations, and lack of increases in pay for years, I truly feel the pain of great teachers who don’t feel valued and I am uncomfortable with the notion that this is seen as an affront to them. I don’t see it that way but their views matter and no education reform works without teachers’ sense of engagement and ownership. They are part of the solution.

    I spoke with a teacher who works at Roosevelt last weekend about her workload, kids with special needs, lack of resources and pay and it continues to amaze me how fantastic teachers are as human beings. The teachers at BHS, Salmon Bay, Queen Anne Elementary are spectacular. I mean that from the depths of my soul.

    Most would agree that some states have good public charter statutes and are seeing positive results. Other states have been a disaster (mostly associated with religious charter schools without any meaningful accountability) and should be closed immediately. Unfortunately once states go in that direction of allowing any/all its tough to change the statute, which gives me pause.

    I do feel that high quality public, non profit charters that maintain the same core accountability and transparency as regular schools, and that have open enrollment, can add to a level of creativity for some kids. It’s certainly no magic bullet.

    Still, my absolute priority is to fully fund high quality public education from pre K through higher education. It’s the core of our public policy obligation as a state. I’ve worked hard on tax reform and policies that help accomplish that goal but it’s a long haul and not an easy journey.

    My true preference–as evidenced by the time I’ve spent on the policy and funding front– would be that we dedicate the time, energy and passion that have surfaced around charters to the work of strengthening teachers, principals and funding together.

    I plan to vote for 1240 and if it passes I’ll watch the pilot schools closely to see if the positives or negatives come true. I’m open to all views on the topic and welcome your thoughts.

    Your partner in service, Reuven.

  3. A Roosevelt Parent permalink
    October 15, 2012 3:23 pm

    I am not sure where you heard Ms. Ravitch speak positively about KIPP. Here is what she had to say on her blog:

    On my view, KIPP is a very regressive philosophy. It’s “work hard, be nice” mantra sounds wonderful to many people, but to me, given that KIPP is working mostly with poor students of color, it sounds very much like “get back in your place. Don’t complain. Do what you’re told.” And given that there is so much emphasis on chanting, rote, and in general the sort of bunch o’ facts education that none of its wealthy backers and cheerleaders would EVER accept for themselves or their children, it feels racist, classist, and reactionary: designed to ensure that inner-city students of color and poverty are pacified with marginal and minimal skills that will not lead them to satisfying, challenging lives with competitive salaries.

    Here is the citation:

    You commented that you were very busy and had four children in school…etc. Maybe you were too busy to fully investigate KIPP and its ilk. Given Ms. Ravitch’s negative view of KIPP, will you be willing to reconsider your position on the Charter School Bill.

  4. Concerned Parent in Queen Anne permalink
    October 16, 2012 2:19 am

    Okay, I guess we should have know what was coming, reading this snow job from our “Democratic” representative, now publicly supporting his second conservative, Republican position: “It works relatively well and ensures in most cases that our state’s quality of life is protected from aggressive, radical proposals that we would come to regret in years to come.” (LOL. Really, Reuven? You might regret this, even after you get a Quid Pro Quo “job” with these folks down the road? )

    “But after four years I’m more convinced than ever that in our state’s political safety net that is particularly attracted to incrementalism we have lost a certain passion for a good, old fashioned state-level revolution.” (Blah blah blah…TRANSLATION: “I have to find some good-sounding lead up to my announcement that I’m now officially in the pocket of the Education Privatizers.”)

    You said, “The research I’ve reviewed shows that KIPP and other top notch charter schools are fantastic options and really open the door to creative learning.”

    What “research” is that, Reuven? Do you have any citations? Any links?

    So much of your post follows the Michelle Rhee/Joel Klein model of mendacity. You have absolutely every one of their “talking points” here, from obsequiously praising “the teachers” to making things up about the “success” of charters and, of course, the “magic” (or sometimes “silver”) bullet…

    Please. Again, do you think we’re that stupid?

    Here’s some REAL information on KIPP. You probably should have done your homework before you started posting your bullshit:

    On KIPP Schools

    What is KIPP?
    KIPP stands for “Knowledge is Power Program” and it uses a “no excuses” philosophy to run 125 Charter schools across the United States enrolling nearly 40,000 students, mainly from low-income communities.

    Why was KIPP founded?
    Michael Feinberg, a KIPP founder, claims public education is failing poor children in our country and says “poverty is just an excuse”. This was music to the ears of right-wing foundations and corporate capitalists who have donated tens of millions to establish KIPP schools as well as promote the idea that the private sector should take over public education.

    Are KIPP schools successful?
    At a superficial level the school results look good but behind the gloss the figures make grim reading. KIPP claims for example that 80% of the children who complete the 8th grade (Year 9) in a KIPP school go on to college, compared to just 20% of children from public schools.

    This is highly misleading at best because the dropout rate from KIPP schools is very high particularly before Grade 8. Overall 30% of students drop out before Grade 8 but the figure becomes an astonishing 40% for African American males. The comparable dropout rate from public schools of the same demographic is 6%. When these dropout rates are factored in the comparative success of KIPP schools plummets. Some researchers have even suggested the rates of college attendance may be lower at KIPP schools than for the same demographic of public school students.

    Why is the dropout rate so high in KIPP schools?
    The dropout rate is high because the schools set rigid standards for passing standardized tests and obeying school rules. Children who fail are kept back a year and many leave to return to public schools rather than repeat a year behind their friends. In this way children of lower academic ability are weeded out.

    Others are expelled or given a suspension when they misbehave (where the parents are encouraged to remove their child from the school).

    After weeding out the poor performers and those who break their rigid rules, the KIPP leaders then bask in the warm glow of the success of those who lasted the distance.

    How are KIPP schools funded?
    KIPP schools receive much more revenue from all sources (eg including corporate donations) per student than comparable public schools, on average $18,491 per student vs. $11,991 per student in a public school.

    The Aotearoa Foundation and the Robertson Foundation are two of KIPP’s main private funders. They were established by American Hedge Fund billionaire Robertson.
    The Robertson Foundation is one of the new breed of so-called ‘philanthrocapitalists’, private sector investment funds see charity not as altruistic “giving”, but as just another “business investment opportunity” to influence government policy and the delivery of public education. And, they do so by lobbying behind closed doors, completely outside the democratic process.

    How are KIPP schools run?
    There is some variation between KIPP schools but basically they run from 7.30 am to
    5 pm each day with a half day on Saturday and three weeks over the summer break.
    They focus strongly on teaching numeracy and literacy because these are measured in standardized tests. The schools have a very tight behavior regime best illustrated in the following anecdote from researcher Howard Berlak after a visit to a KIPP school in San Francisco:
    “When I was there children who followed all the rules were given points that could be exchanged for goodies at the school store. Those who resisted the rules or were slackers wore a large sign pinned to their clothes labeled “miscreant.” Miscreants sat apart from the others at all times including lunch, were denied recess and participation in all other school projects and events.
. . . . I’ve spent many years in schools. This one felt like a humane, low security prison or something resembling a locked-down drug rehab program for adolescents run on reward and punishments by well meaning people. Maybe a case can be made for such places, but I cannot imagine anyone (including the Times reporter) sending their kids there unless they have no other acceptable options. What is most disturbing is the apparent universal belief by KIPP staff and partisans that standardized tests scores are the singular and most important measure of a truly good education. ”
    Similar stories are commonplace. It’s easy to see why the Knowledge is Power program has been dubbed the Kids in Prison program.

    What are the rules for teachers, students and parents in KIPP schools?
    The rules for teachers, parents and children are here:
    Teaching and learning is not so much based around good relationships between teachers and students as it is based on sets of rules to be followed.

    Who teaches in these schools?
    The teachers are predominantly young and less experienced. Many are “graduates” of the “Teach for America” program which fast-tracks teacher education. The dropout rate of teachers is very high – typically they leave after two years – because they work unsustainably long hours (up to 70-80 hours per week is common) on relatively low pay.

    Should New Zealanders be worried?
    Absolutely. This is an all out attack on public education. Once charter schools are established they will be promoted heavily by the right wing just as they have been elsewhere in the US and education will likely become as fragmented and incoherent as it has become elsewhere in our country.

    But couldn’t charter schools improve education for children in low-income communities?
    Charter schools have been around for 20 years and there is no reliable data to conclude they do better than public schools in any country (see earlier comments re KIPP schools) for children from low-income communities. Promoters of charter schools invariably produce data to support a claim of better education but these generally founder under independent assessment.

    Earlier this year Massey University Policy Response Group did a comprehensive analysis of charter schools in the UK, USA and Sweden. Their report can be read in full under the “Research on Charter Schools” tab at

    Some worthwhile references on charter schools and KIPP:

  5. Kathy permalink
    October 16, 2012 6:43 am

    I’m afraid you are making a mistake, Reuven.

    We need to fund proven strategies for all students, not unproven initiatives for a few.

    The legislature has not provided a funding stream for 1240. The Supreme Court has charged the legislature with failing to amply fund education. The Washington State Office of Fiscal Mangement reports that 1240 will have an indeterminant, but non-zero impact on local public schools. 1240 would allow for federal, state, levy and grant dollars to be given to publicly financed, but privately operated entities. The formulas for distribution have not been determined. It is clear that 1240 would divert funding from an under-funded system.

    Common sense will tell you that 40 additional schools would require additional administrators, secretarial staff, cafeteria workers etc. Funding for these individuals have not been provided. Funding these positions would be drained from an underfunded system.

    Over the past 3 years we’ve lost $2.5 B to K-12 eduation. I’ve watched SPS close a funding gap of over $100M. SPS will be dealing with a funding gap of $15M next year. The district has already RIF’d teachers, eliminated funding for elementary school conselors, truancy specialists, drug and alcohol counselors, math specialists, summer school and more. We need funding to assure success of all students.

    SPS is dealing with inter-connected issues of continued cuts to education, transportation, capacity, building, boundary lines etc. As a result of budget cuts, Central Administration is struggling to keep up with the demans of a large district. 1240 would place additional burdens on our administration.

    I appreciate your desire to help some children, but I am concerned that 1240 would destabalize an already struggling system and put more students at risk.

    I’m voting No and I hope others join me.

  6. Concerned Parent in Queen Anne permalink
    October 16, 2012 8:49 am

    “I plan to vote for 1240 and if it passes I’ll watch the pilot schools closely to see if the positives or negatives come true.”
    Reuven Carlyle

    Can you tell us what you’re trying to say in the above sentence? What do you mean, you’ll “watch the pilot schools closely”; with all of your free time, I assume?

    How will you know for certain what goes on in each of these “charters”, Reuven? And will you really care once you’ve done the dirty work and helped them get established?

    Why should we believe you, based on your record? Are you just playing us, one more time?

    And, once you’ve opened up the gates to charters, how do you put them back outside?

    What power will you have to stop them? But will you really care? After all, your family could easily educate all of your children in private academies. So, if our schools start to go downhill because of your work on behalf of 1240 and education privatizers, you can just walk away, leaving the rest of us to deal with the wreckage.

    Thanks, Reuven, for nothing. We’ll remember this.

  7. Mary Wallon permalink
    October 25, 2012 11:02 am

    My “true preference” is also “that we dedicate the time, energy and passion that have surfaced around charters to the work of strengthening teachers, principals and funding together.”

    It makes no sense to state a preference for supporting public education, then to state support for 1240, which would use funds that might go to the public schools. Doesn’t it bother you that so much of the support for charters comes from extremely wealthy people, and from out of state? And that the charter schools would be supervised by appointees not directly answerable to the voters? I accept your intention to watch carefully, but you have other things to do.

    I would add as part of my “true preference” that we pay attention to the role of wrap around services and also to preschool and college level education. Public education does not exist in a vacuum. The focus on testing distracts us from attention to factors involved with home and community that contribute to student success. One thing that KIPP shows us is that wrap around services do matter.

    If you vote for 1240, you’re not showing preference for strengthening public education. You are part of diluting its strength.

  8. 36th district Democrat permalink
    October 25, 2012 11:59 am

    There’s a one day conference November 13 at the UW with Dr. Pasi Sahlberg of Finland, on their system of education. We might be able to learn something from them Information is in the Economic Opportunity Institute newsletter, which I forwarded to Reuven.

  9. Jim Cap permalink
    October 26, 2012 10:21 am

    Thanks, “36th District Democrat”, for the info on the one-day conference November 13 at the UW with Dr. Pasi Sahlberg of Finland, on their system of education.

    Unfortunately, by that date, the damage might have already been done by the billionaires who think they know better than the rest of us regarding the education of our children.

    And if 1240 passes, due to the “benign neglect” of people like our Representative Reuven Carlyle, the hit to our public schools will be dramatic and likely irrevocable.

  10. October 29, 2012 6:55 am


    There is more regarding your arguments and how you have based your decision on mis-information at “Maybe Representative Reuven Carlyle will reconsider his stand on Initiative 1240″,


  11. Charlie Mas permalink
    October 31, 2012 9:19 am

    Who do you represent? You saw one charter school, swallowed their marketing materials whole, and declare all charters good? Seriously? Is this how you decide all issues?

    The primary difference between charter schools and public schools is that the charter schools are free from state rules. If you believe that freedom is such a benefit, then why aren’t you proposing the revolutionary solution of repealing state laws that constrain schools? Not only are you not doing that, but you’re doing the opposite. You’re looking to add more and more state-level regulation on schools and school personnel with new rules for principals. It looks like your actions run contrary to this idea that you support? Can you reconcile the two apparently contradictory efforts? Why support freeing some schools from state rules as a path to success while constraining other schools with additional rules as a path to success?

  12. Concerned Parent in Queen Anne permalink
    October 31, 2012 10:12 am

    There IS a consistent thread running through Reuven Carlyle’s seemingly contradictory musings about education: If The Privatizers tell him to jump, he answers “How High, exactly?”

    Carlyle parrots the Talking Points of the Billionaires Boys Club. He takes his orders from groups like “Democrats” for Education Reform, Stand for Children, Students First and other Orwellian BS front groups.

    It’s sad that we have a person like this—who is evasive, mendacious and always calculating when it comes to pushing the Privatization Agenda—in our legislature.

    It’s time to begin to look for an alternative for this seat. I so regret ever voting for this shifty, two-faced, self-righteous equivocator.

    Go ahead and ban me from any further comments. That won’t stop the truth from coming out.

  13. October 31, 2012 10:54 am

    Concerned: Why would I ban you from making comments on this site? I’ve never done that and won’t start now. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Robert Kennedy and others in time call upon us to elevate our civic discourse and live our lives with the spirit of justice and service. While you are frequently, personally vicious and mean spirited in your language toward me in comments across the web, I accept in my heart that your passion comes from deeply held values about educating all kids. I do wish you would acknowledge, at least privately when you look in your mirror, that the grace and dignity of public service requires those of us who put our names forward to withstand unmitigated rage because of the nature of representative democracy. We are always going to anger some. Is my agenda privatization? No. Is my agenda to punish teachers, tear down public education and destroy our society and make billionaires richer? No. Do we disagree on some strategic policies such as seniority shouldn’t be the sole criteria for the layoff of teachers in times of budget challenges? Yes. Do I believe principals should have lifetime tenure and be transferred from school to school regardless of performance? No. I am sorry you are enraged by my policy positions. You have that right. But I do ask you to search your soul as a human being, a wife/husband/father/mother/community member as to whether you bring dignity to your family when you call me shallow, soul-less names such as “a shifty, two-faced, self-righteous equivocator.” I invited you to have coffee in one of your comments to have an adult conversation. You have rejected every effort at civic dialogue and retreated to rage, name calling and destructive language that serves no one but your desire for anonymous retribution. You have chosen not to come out into the light with me. I hope your children are learning other, more spiritually fulfilling values. I know in my heart that when you kiss your children goodnight you transfer values of love instead of darkness. Why not try it during the daytime as well? You might find a touch of holiness in mundane acts of kindness.

    My offer of coffee stands.

    Your partner in service, Reuven.

  14. Charlie Mas permalink
    November 2, 2012 2:38 am

    I’ll skip the coffee, thanks, but I would like to know how you can believe that more legislative control will make better schools (when they are public schools) while also believing that we can get good (charter) schools if we free them from legislative control.

    What is the relationship between legislative control and school quality?

  15. Kathy permalink
    November 5, 2012 9:37 am


    As we know, Initiative 1240 will take funding from our underfunded schools. The Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors unanimously passed a resolution opposing I 1240 because it will put greater amounts of students at risk:

    . “WHEREAS, the Seattle School Board of Directors believes that the passage of I-1240 could remove or diminish local control of public schools and draw funding away from an already financially stressed system, causing greater hardship for the majority of schools and students within our boundaries; and NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, for these reasons, the Seattle School Board of Directors opposes the passage of Initiative 1240″.

    What is your financial plan to support our under funded schools and I 1240; the unfunded initiative which you support?

    Additonally I 1240 would allow for a simple majority of teachers- as few as 10- to turn a public property into the hands of private entities. I 1240 is not accountable to a voting public

    Do you support turning public properties into the hands of private entities?.

    Finally, Initiative 1240 would dismantle the public abilities ability to vote out individuals of the pro-charter Charter Commission. Do you support elimination of local control by the voting public?

  16. Kathy permalink
    November 5, 2012 9:52 am

    Sorry, make that:

    Initiative 1240 would dismantle the public’s ability to vote out members of the Charter Commission- a board that must be pro-charter. Do you support elmination of local control by the voting public?

  17. Mary permalink
    December 1, 2012 10:32 am

    Wow! I’m late to the party again. Your thin and superficial rationale for a positive vote for charters leaves me nonplussed. Privatizing public institutions is precisely what is leading us to a lower standard of living and greater polarization between the rich and poor. Public education is the one area we should all be celebrating, supporting and protecting. I think you have shown your true perspective here and you are no Dan Evans. Thank you, Reuven. I’m not really a one-issue voter but I am in your district and my new understanding of your conservative leanings in the fiscal and social areas leave me no choice but to look for an alternative. If you have a belief, at least pen it in such as way as to sound authoritative and informed.

  18. Mary permalink
    December 1, 2012 10:36 am

    Should have added: I can vote for a candidate I disagree with if I think he has integrity and can justify his beliefs. Unfortunately, your post sounds like political hackery. If you believe in something, convince me why it is the right thing to do with facts and well-thought out arguments. See the posters above for examples.

  19. Mary permalink
    December 1, 2012 10:41 am

    Finally, from what I understand charters lost big time in urban and educated Seattle/King County. Is it possible you are not in step with your constituency? Or is your constituency Gates . . . Hanauer . . . Bezos?

    I guess I’m pretty ticked about your representation of me.

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