Politics & Government

Will lawmakers act to save federal school waiver?

With just six days left in the legislative session, time is running short for a push to change Washington’s teacher evaluation system to make it comply with federal demands.

State lawmakers remain divided on how to change the evaluations, with some concerned that a proposal from Gov. Jay Inslee to delay new requirements for three years won’t be enough to satisfy the U.S. Department of Education.

The Department of Education told state officials last year that Washington’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act is in jeopardy unless lawmakers require teacher and principal evaluations to include student results on statewide tests.

State law already says evaluations must incorporate some kind of student testing data, but districts can opt to use scores from local tests instead of the statewide assessments.

Leaders of the Republican-dominated state Senate majority say they want to make the simplest possible change to state law: saying that teacher evaluations “must” use results from statewide tests, instead of the current language that makes it optional.

“Every time we stray away from (changing) ‘can’ to ‘must,’ it gives the Department of Education a reason to pause,” said state Sen. Steve Litzow, a Mercer Island Republican who chairs the Senate’s education committee.

“Let’s keep it straight, keep it simple,” Litzow said.

But Inslee and State Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn are pushing a plan that would delay the required use of statewide tests until the 2017-18 school year. Their plan also would make the change contingent on the federal government renewing Washington’s waiver.

Losing the waiver from No Child Left Behind would mean school districts in Washington would lose control over how they spend about $38 million in federal education money, which several school districts have said would force them to cut programs for low-income students.

Inslee said he received assurances from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan that Washington could still get its waiver renewed even if lawmakers delay the testing requirement. He said the delay would give the state time to collect baseline data from the new tests it will start administering in 2015, which are based on the Common Core State Standards.

“I will tell you I am highly confident that if the Legislature passes the bill, we will obtain a waiver,” Inslee said.

Inslee added: “It’s something that’s simply necessary if we’re going to preserve this funding for our kids.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said many members of his caucus wouldn’t support a bill that doesn’t have the delay and the contingency language built in.

Even those provisions may not be enough to win some lawmakers’ support, Sullivan said, noting that the state Senate voted down a bill that aimed to address the waiver issue last month.

“There are those that simply don’t want the federal government to dictate how we do policy here within the state, and there are others that believe it’s just bad policy,” Sullivan said.

Members of the state teachers union are lobbying hard against any changes to the state’s teacher and principal evaluation system, which is being implemented for the first time this year. Several hundred teachers converged Thursday at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to reject both proposals now before the Legislature.

Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said changing the state’s new teacher evaluation system now would “undermine the faith and confidence teachers have in the system.”

Teachers also question whether they should be evaluated using the new Common Core-based tests, Wood said.

“To mandate the use of a test when nobody knows whether it is valid or reliable is ludicrous,” Wood said.

No agreement had been reached on the proposed changes to teacher evaluations as of Friday. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Thursday.

Some education reform advocates said they believe lawmakers will come together and approve legislation to help Washington keep its federal waiver before then.

“I’m optimistic because I believe they absolutely need to do what’s right for our kids in the state,” said Jana Carlisle, executive director of Partnership for Learning.

“This would be a huge embarrassment for Washington state to lose our waiver,” Carlisle said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209 melissa.santos@