Politics & Government

Gregoire signs several education bills

Gov. Chris Gregoire lets out a yell as she finishes signing a stack of bills at a signing event at Auburn High School, Monday, March 29, 2010, in Auburn, Wash.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Gov. Chris Gregoire lets out a yell as she finishes signing a stack of bills at a signing event at Auburn High School, Monday, March 29, 2010, in Auburn, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) AP

Ever wanted to go back to high school and change how things are run there?

Gov. Chris Gregoire did it Monday. But her action has consequences not just for her alma mater, Auburn Senior High School, but for all Washington schools.

She signed into law a number of changes to the state’s education system, including one of her top legislative priorities: allowing the state to apply for a piece of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion in school grants.

The question is whether the changes are sweeping enough to qualify for a strong finish in the Race to the Top competition.

“Win or lose Race to the Top, we’re going to guarantee that our kids are successful and they win in the race to the top for themselves,” Gregoire told supporters and students in a gymnasium decorated with Trojans green and gold.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Tennessee and Delaware as first-round winners Monday, splitting $600 million and praising them for aggressive plans to evaluate educators, use data and turn around low-performing schools.

Washington was one of 10 states to sit out the first round. Its second-round application is due June 1. (Washington will receive $17 million in other federal grants for low-performing schools, the state announced Monday. It will be distributed to Tacoma and eight other school districts.)

The new law seeks better evaluation of whether educators and schools are doing their jobs. It gives the state authority it lacked to intervene in low-performing schools, requiring them to show how they’ll improve.

School systems must rate teachers, and can – but don’t have to – use data such as test scores.

It’s a cautious approach that helped Gregoire secure an endorsement from the Washington Education Association.

John Aiken, a science teacher at Auburn Senior High, said the state needs to hold teachers accountable, as long as evaluations don’t depend solely on a student’s progress in a class. “There are factors in the 23 other hours of the day, quite possibly,” he said.

Teachers will now spend three years instead of two on pre-tenure “provisional status.” Aiken said that could help commit districts to an extra year of help for teachers.

Washington is moving in the right direction, said Lisa Macfarlane, co-founder of the League of Education Voters, which wanted tough accountability measures.

Macfarlane and another advocate of reform, Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, said the federal awards Monday show the competition for the rest of the money will be stiff. “A mere application doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful,” Priest said.

Another law Gregoire signed Monday phases in a new funding system for schools, continuing the state’s process of expanding what is considered basic education.

At the same time, another law will allow districts to ask voters to raise levies above their capped amount, which Gregoire said Monday is critical to get districts through the economic downturn, but which critics say shifts responsibility.

“The state’s got to step up, and not put it on local property tax(payers),” Auburn Superintendent Kip Herren said.

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