A last-minute education reform bill proposed by state Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue) and Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-18 Ridgefield) on Tuesday met stiff resistance in the senate ways and means committee yesterday afternoon. The bill would make school districts lay off underperforming teachers first, regardless of seniority; provide bonuses for high-performing teachers; eliminate automatic bonuses ("bumps") for teachers with masters degrees; and mandate that schools on the receiving end of teacher transfers must sign off on new hires.

Not surprisingly, the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state's teachers union (which had helped kill a similar bill last month), led the opposition. In a surprise to legislators, however, the League of Education Voters, typically the lead advocate for tougher school and teacher accountability standards, said they did not support the bill.

[pullquote]"I'm one of those excellent teachers that this bill purports to encourage and support. I'm not saving my best teaching for when it really counts, because it counts every second of every day for the kids that I teach ... I'm not sandbagging until the bonuses come out."[/pullquote]

WEA members and teachers voiced objections similar to the ones WEA spokesman Rich Wood outlined to PubliCola yesterday morning. As a fifth grade teacher from Mukilteo---"one of those excellent teachers that this bill purports to encourage and support"---put it, "I'm not saving my best teaching for when it really counts, because it counts every second of every day for the kids that I teach. ... I'm not sandbagging until the bonuses come out."  The bill, opponents said, would pit teachers against one another instead of promoting collaboration and would undermine new evaluation standards.

Glenn Bafia from the Seattle Education Association, the city's teacher union, argued that good work—like using student data as a "trigger" to take a closer look at teachers—was already underway at Seattle Public Schools. But, Bafia added, he felt "the evaluation process and the layoff process should be kept as two separate entities."  (Last year's big education reform bill, initially rejected by the unions for its provision tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, eventually got the nod from the unions when legislators struck a compromise to establish a four-tiered evaluation system—instead of the vague two-tiered system—while also setting up a pilot program that allowed a few districts to look at the test score model, among other changes.)

The League of Education Voters, a longtime advocate of big changes to school and teacher accountability, was all for Tom's similar bill earlier this session, which proposed making layoff decisions based on principal evaluations rather than seniority. But on Wednesday, their lobbyist George Scarola, one of the main education lobbyists in Olympia, testified against the bill.

Scarola told legislators that the LEV supported the goals of the bill, including removing non-satisfactory teachers before satisfactory teachers "regardless of seniority," mutual consent hiring decisions, and rewarding excellent teachers. But Scarola said the bill "requires a lot more stakeholder input. ... We need to take more time ... and a lot more public buy-in" before moving the proposal forward.

"To the extent that [the bill] directs the working groups to consider all those ideas, then we're enthusiastic," Scarola added, "but if this bill links compensation to performance we're opposed."

Scarola also challenged some of the key assumptions embedded in the legislation—namely, that teachers with masters degrees do not produce better student outcomes. He noted that in the areas of math and science, a masters degree has been proven to have a positive effect on student learning. On eliminating bonuses for teachers with masters degrees, Scarola said, "I think a lot of teachers would say that this is just plain unfair."

[pullquote]"Our education system is not in place simply to employ teachers, but to provide a high quality education to our children, and to do this, the only responsible thing is to keep the most effective teachers. ... If teachers are rated unsatisfactory, they should be laid off before other teachers."[/pullquote]

The bill did have its supporters: Representatives of Stand For Children (usually an LEV ally on education issues), testified in favor of the proposal. Anne Moore, a parent, said, "Our education system is not in place simply to employ teachers, but to provide a high-quality education to our children, and to do this the only responsible thing is to keep the most effective teachers. ... If teachers are rated unsatisfactory, they should be laid off before other teachers."

The committee itself seemed to lean toward supporting the bill. Both sponsor Tom and committee member Jim Kastama (D-25, Puyallup) confirmed to PubliCola that the bill has enough votes to make it out of committee. During yesterday's hearing, Sen. Phil Rockefeller (D-23, Bainbridge Island), pushed Scarola to address whether last year's big education reform bill, which LEV lobbied for, didn't give the legislature a "basis to make the linkage" between  compensation and student performance.

Another committee member, Sen. Cheryl Pflug (R-5, Maple Valley) summarized the legislators' open exasperation with testimony from teachers who opposed the bill, saying, "We'd like to offer [talented teachers] more than a round of applause, and that's what this [bill] would allow us to do."

Watch the hearing here starting at the 1:21 mark.