Democrats bet wrong in gamble on school funding

Of all the election-year gambles the state Senate might have taken this session, we didn’t expect a game of chicken with the U.S. Department of Education.

Senate Democrats, and a sprinkling of Republicans, were betting the feds would overlook our state’s noncompliance with the 2002 No Child Left Behind law when they voted down SB 5246.

It was a foolish gambit supported by Gov. Jay Inslee, who admitted Tuesday the state must comply with federal requirements to retain control over $44 million in federal funding.

The No Child Left Behind law set unrealistic standards for the nation’s public schools, and threatened to pull funding when they failed. Congress should have fixed this bad law, but – no surprise here – federal lawmakers failed to act.

To keep the money flowing, the Obama administration granted waivers to states if they promised to use statewide student test scores in teacher evaluations. Most states complied. Washington did not.

Instead, state lawmakers strengthened teacher evaluations two years ago by requiring the review process to include tests that measured growth in student learning. But Washington’s law fell short of the federal requirement because it made use of statewide tests optional, not mandatory.

Senate Bill 5246 would have fixed that, requiring teacher evaluations to use statewide tests, but not exclusively. It allowed other measurements of student growth, and did not dictate the weight given to statewide tests relative to districtwide or schoolwide tests in teacher reviews.

Democrats in the Senate and House were over-optimistic in counting on Inslee and the state’s congressional delegation to convince the Department of Education to grant Washington an exception not extended to other states. Inslee met earlier this week with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, apparently without success.

On Tuesday, Inslee changed his tune. He now says the state must pass legislation mandating the use of statewide tests or lose the so-called federal Title I funds.

It’s imperative the legislature act quickly. If Washington loses the funding, parents of students at underperforming schools could choose to send their kids to other schools and spend some of the $44 million on transportation rather than learning assistance. Also, parents could request private tutors to supplement their children’s education. That, too, would come from the $44 million pot.

The state could have avoided this whole messy scenario by simply changing one word: from “can” use statewide tests, to “must” use them.

But it is telling that in an election year, Democrats chose to stand with the WEA and hoped they had enough clout in Washington, D.C., to warrant special treatment. They bet wrong, and put families and students at risk.