Senate OKs grades for schools, teacher rejection by principals

Democrats say bill ignores court mandate

msantos@theolympian.comMarch 7, 2013 

Proposals to grade all Washington schools from A to F and to give principals veto authority over which teachers are assigned to their schools passed a divided state Senate Wednesday.

The plans, backed by the Senate’s Republican-led majority coalition, faced strong opposition from minority Democrats, who said they failed to address the pressing issue of how to improve funding for public schools.

Several Democrats and a spokesman for the state teachers union said the Republicans were ignoring last January’s state Supreme Court directive in the McCleary case. The court told the Legislature it wasn’t meeting its constitutional duty to fund basic education and ordered it do so by 2018.

“I think the question is, why aren’t we having that discussion around McCleary?” asked Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray of Seattle. “Why are we having a discussion about reforms when the court just told us to fund the reforms we already did?”

Republican Sen. Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup, part of the Senate majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, said the McCleary decision also directed the Legislature to improve how the state delivers education in Washington state — not just pour more money into the existing system.

“The McCleary decision was very clear about funding, but it was also very clear about reforms,” Dammeier said at a news conference Wednesday. “Even the court recognizes that funding alone is not enough. This is about the reform pieces. This is about, ‘What are we doing to get different outcomes for our students?’”

One of the bills that proved contentious Wednesday would require a school principal to approve any assignment of teachers or staff to his or her school.

If a school district couldn’t find a place for an employee that is mutually agreeable to both the employee and the principal, that employee would be eligible for a temporary assignment decided by the district. But if a permanent place for the teacher or staff member couldn’t be found within eight months, he or she could be fired.

“Principals keep telling me that if we’re going to hold them accountable for their schools … they want more flexibility and control over who their teams are,” said Republican Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island, who sponsored Senate Bill 5242.

The issue of teacher reassignment policy was central to the fall 2011 teachers’ strike in Tacoma.

Dan Voelpel, spokesman for Tacoma Public Schools, said that the district is happy with the agreement it worked out with the teachers union regarding teacher reassignment following the strike and “wouldn’t be in favor of having any prescriptive changes.”

The state teachers union also opposes the proposal.

“What it really does is eliminate any semblance of fairness or objectivity or even transparency from school staffing decisions involving teachers,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association. “It tramples on fair and due process, and tramples on local control over how staffing decisions are made.”

The bill passed the Senate 27-22.

Another bill that prompted more than an hour of debate on the Senate floor would give all schools a grade of A through F based on their performance in areas such as test scores and graduation rates starting in the 2014-2015 school year.

A majority of Democrats opposed Senate Bill 5328, with several Democrats advocating an approach that would give more detailed verbal descriptions of how schools are performing in different areas.

“If it’s just an F grade for an entire school, you lose the nuances that are part of every single school in our state and in our country,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. “It’s treating a school like a piece of cardboard.”

Members of the mostly Republican majority caucus said that letter grades provide clarity that parents need to help them understand how their schools are doing.

“What we’re trying to do is to make it clear to every parent,” said Litzow, who also sponsored the school-grading legislation. “Not every parent has the academic background that we do here in the Legislature, or speaks English.”

A last-minute amendment to the bill would designate any school that receives an F as a “required action district” that could receive additional funding to help it make improvements.

The bill passed the Senate 26-23. It now will head to the House, which is led by Democrats who will most likely fight its passage.

Other education legislation proved less controversial in the Senate Wednesday, including a proposal to automatically hold back third-graders or sign them up for summer school if they fail to pass a statewide reading exam, provided that parents agree with the plan. That bill, Senate Bill 5237, passed 35-13.

Staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report. Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209 msantos@theolympian.com

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