Politics & Government

Peter Callaghan: On education reform, the political center crumbles

It’s probably risky business to make assumptions about how politicians in political bodies will behave, although I’ve usually been safe assuming that legislators will vote yes on their own bills.

Until Tuesday, that is, when five state senators who had sponsored bills to fix a gap in the teacher and principal evaluation program voted no. Their votes, combined with senators from the far left and the far right who have traditionally opposed education reform measures, let Senate Bill 5246 die.

While the politics of the bill are complex, the underlying issue is pretty simple. In order to continue receiving a waiver from the most-onerous and counter-productive sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state was asked to deliver other reforms. Among them was to create a more-rigorous system to evaluate teachers and principals and to make student growth data — test scores — a significant factor in those evaluations.

It’s a pretty good evaluation system with one flaw, at least according to the federal Department of Education. The state currently lets local districts pick from a variety of tests in their evaluation systems — state, districtwide, school-based or even classroom-specific. The feds allow the other assessments to be included but require that the statewide test be used by all districts. To keep the waiver, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn has asked the Legislature to make that fix.

What could happen if the Legislature doesn’t act? NCLB requires schools to make annual progress toward improving the learning of all students with special emphasis on low-income and minority students. While well-intentioned, the law makes it all but impossible to show adequate yearly progress, meaning nearly every school in the state is considered failing.

Without the waiver, these failing schools must notify all parents of that label and offer outside tutoring for struggling students. As embarrassing as such letters might be, districts would also lose control over 20 percent of their federal money devoted to low-income students. In Washington, that’s $38 million districts now spend on programs like expanded preschool, more learning time for vulnerable students and more interventions for kids struggling in math and reading.

At least two bills to fix the system were brought before the Senate education committee — SB 5246 with mostly Republican sponsorship and another bill with only Democratic sponsorship. Republicans on the committee added several other education issues to SB 5246 which caused all the Democrats to vote no at the committee level. One of them — Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah — said that had it been restricted to the testing fix, the bill would have passed unanimously even though the Washington Education Association was lobbying hard against it.

Tuesday, Senate education committee Chairman Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, relented and stripped the bill down to its clean form. That would normally mean that moderate members of the Majority Coalition Caucus would have been joined by the moderates in the Democratic caucus to pass the bill easily. The political center, after all, is where the votes have come on education reform bills.

Until Tuesday, that is, when Senate Democrats refused to take yes for an answer. Despite getting the clean bill they demanded and even sponsored, every member of the Senate Democratic caucus except Mullet voted no.

That leaves the state with no bill and a lot of questions. Would the WEA really put at risk $38 million worth of programs for the most-vulnerable students? Would Senate Democrats really calculate that acquiescing to lobbying from one of its biggest constituency groups is a good strategy, worth the political fallout if the waiver isn’t extended?

And what makes them so confident in rumors that the feds aren’t serious or that a powerful U.S. senator like Patty Murray can fix it all with a phone call to Education Secretary Arne Duncan?

Murray, who visited with legislative Democrats in Olympia on Monday, denied through a spokesman that she suggested the bill wasn’t necessary but said she will continue to advocate for the extension of the waiver.

Dorn, in turn, says he has gotten zero indication that Duncan will do for Washington what he has not done for any other state – back down on waiver requirements.

It’s all risky business for Democrats, one with big political upside if it works but devastating policy downside if it doesn’t. Risky enough that I would have thought they would have decided that it wasn’t worth it.

Until Tuesday, that is.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@