In the closing hours of this week's latest policy cutoff deadline, house education committee chairwoman Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos  (D-37, Seattle) passed a number of education bills, including one that amends requirements for student achievement. Some would argue that the bill, in fact, could lower requirements.

Rep. Monica Stonier (D-17, Vancouver) attached an amendment to the bill that would allow credits for vocational programs to count toward high school graduation standards. Both Rep. Kristine Lytton (D-30, Anacortes) and Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D-41, Renton), both Democratic caucus go-tos on education, broke ranks and voted against the bill because of the amendment. The amended bill barely passed, 11-10, with two Republicans, Rep. Liz Pike (R-18, Camas) and Rep. Judy Warnick (R-13, Moses Lake), nudging it out.

Both Rep. Lytton and Rep. Maxwell say cutting these requirements will leave students short in preparing for a STEM-oriented future. Both Rep. Lytton and Rep. Maxwell say cutting these requirements will leave students short in preparing for a STEM-oriented future (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and undermine the credit-evaluating authority of local school districts.

“There are many great aspects to the bill, but the part that concerned me was the ability to waive the fourth English and third science credit," Rep. Lytton told PubliCola. "It changes the 24-credit framework established in HB 2261 [passed in 2009]."

Lytton is referring to the landmark education reform bill that Democrats such as Maxwell pushed through (Lytton wasn't elected yet), breaking with the teachers' union, a longtime Democratic ally, back in 2009. The bill and its standards for defining "basic education" eventually became the basis of the Washington State Supreme Court's McCleary decision.

"The State Board of Education has been working on this for many, many years," Lytton continued. "Our students need to be college and career ready. Right now we actually have the ability for school districts to create course equivalency for career and technical education credit."

In committee, Rep. Lytton noted that some skill centers in her Anacortes school district are already allowing the flexibility Rep. Stonier’s amendment seeks to allow statewide. 

“That may be the case in her district,” Rep. Stonier tells PubliCola, “but not every district has that flexibility. We need to offer this flexibility to all students, not just to the lucky ones. I understand the concerns of not adhering to 24 credits, but that standard is for kids that are college-bound."

Stonier says that if students who aren't headed to work after high school get behind on the 24-credit requirement, "it stops them from graduating. For example, we should be able to swap an English credit with a technical writing class,” Rep. Stonier says. “We are not keeping school relevant for kids that are dropping out. These skill centers keep them in school."

Rep. Maxwell introduced an amendment to the bill that would have essentially reversed Rep. Stonier’s amendment, but it failed in committee.

Maxwell also said school boards already have the ability to make their own decisions on what credits count toward graduation.  “We already have a way in place to do that at a local level. We don’t need to be mandating that change from a legislative point of view when school boards are fully capable of doing so.”

Rep. Lytton agrees. "I don't want to micromanage [school board decisions]," she says. Both Lytton and Maxwell admit they would have supported the bill if it weren't for Rep. Stonier's amendment.

But Rep. Stonier says there needs to be a single standard across the board. “Even if each school district creates flexibility for these students, it will be a bit challenging to agree on a standard equivalency [for all school districts].” Her amendment hangs in the balance as the bill now goes to the appropriation committee, which is chaired by Maxwell's education ally, Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48, Medina), one of the architects of the 2009 reforms. 

"It's going to be a hot topic," Rep. Lytton predicts.

Rep. Lytton and Rep. Maxwell have signed on to another bill, sponsored by ed reform champion Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-47, Covington) and co-sponsored by charters advocate Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37, S. Seattle), which authorizes the State Board of Education's 24 credit-framework to take effect with the freshman class of 2015-16. It's currently sitting in the house rules committee.