New state Senate majority leader, Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue), the ficsally conservative Democrat who joined with the Republicans to form the "Majority Coalition Caucus" has said the group would focus on balancing the budget, funding education in compliance with the McCleary decision, and creating jobs – all while avoiding divisive social issues that could tear the caucus apart.
With that in mind: This week’s newsmaker is Sen. Steve Litzow (R-41, Mercer Island), the pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion-rights Republican who Tom put in charge of the Early Education and K-12 committee. As we reported earlier this week, Litzow applauded when Gov. Jay Inslee promised to sign the Reproductive Parity Act into law—a bill that Litzow is co-sponsoring. Inslee's shout out for reproductive rights drew an angry response from most Republicans and revealed that their "majority"—with Litzow as a key committee Chair—is a shaky one.
I spoke with Litzow Thursday afternoon over the phone both about his controversial support (within the MCC) for the Reproductive Parity Act and his lead role on the biggest issue of the session—education.
Editorial note on K-12 funding: The State Supreme Court has said the legislature has failed to meet its constitutional mandate to fully fund K-12 schools. The Democrats and the Republicans have disagreed over the price tag, though, with the Democrats talking about needing up to an additional $1.5 to $1.7 billion this biennium and some Republicans—stressing reforms—saying we may be able to get by with $500 million.
The Court's decision, though, was predicated on the batch of reforms that already passed in 2009 and 2010. Litzow says the initial reform bill is not enough—that he wants more reforms, and that he's opposed to just dumping more money in.
PubliCola: You're the co-sponsor of the Reproductive Parity Act this year. But, with the MCC in charge, they’ve pledged that no social issues will come up this session. Does the MCC’s promise affect how you’ll proceed?
Litzow: Well, this is an important bill for me. It’s important for reproductive justice, that’s why I sponsored it and why I was supporting it last year. I’m elected to represent my district and it’s an important issue to my district. Whether or not I can move it through the caucus, that’s a completely separate issue.
Every senator has the right to introduce bills that they feel are important. Our caucus has a wide variety of opinions on social issues. The organizational principles are jobs, the budget and education. If we’ve got a coalition to support this bill, we’ll pass it. But on Day 4, we’re not quite there yet.
I am sure there are a number of bills that are being introduced that are outside of the jobs, education and budget realm that other senators are going to be working. We’ll see where we are when we get to 105 days.
PubliCola: The McCleary decision compels the Legislature to fully fund education. This week, you heard more about that in your committee– as well as a presentation on increasing education quality in times of budget cuts. Do you have any plans for additional reforms that could reduce the McCleary funding burden this session?
Litzow: No. McCleary basically said, “you define what basic education is and then you fund it. 2261 [the 2009 education reform bill that grounds the McCleary decision] looks reasonable, but you haven’t funded it.” The working estimate of how much that will cost this biennium is $750 million to $1.5 billion, so a billion is a good working number—it seems reasonable.
But we can’t keep pouring money into a system that’s not working for everyone. We have a 76 percent graduation rate. We’re failing one out of every four kids, and that’s disproportionately the poor and children of color. We have got to stop doing that. We know money is one of the issues, but think about this: In 2000, we had an 80 percent graduation rate and spent $5,100 per kid. In 2010-2011, we spent $6,800 per student. We’ve increased funding 34 percent – 11 percent adjusted for inflation – and we’ve gotten worse results.
We’ve got to put more into education but we’ve got to figure out how to get better results.
PubliCola: What reforms will accomplish that? Is there an effort to resurrect some of the issues that passed last year?
Litzow: You heard Gov. Inslee speak about continuing to strengthen the teacher evaluation bill. There’s mutual consent, how student achievement is being used and how do you make that useable for personnel decisions for the principals. We’re going to grade schools A, B, C, D or F based on the new accountability standards. Principals are saying, “hold me accountable, but I need more authority to build my team and the environment that works for my kids.”
If you’re familiar with the Roadmap Project – it includes things like extended school days, summer reading programs, different types of curriculum.
PubliCola: How many of these ideas are palatable to the Washington Education Association?
Litzow: We are in constant communication with the WEA. How palatable the ideas end up being, time will tell.
PubliCola: Voters in November passed an initiative to allow charter schools. How does that play into your ideas for reform moving forward?
Litzow: The initiative allows a handful of schools to open up. My thought is, let’s get that up and running. It’s targeted where it’s needed the most, and let’s see what they’re doing that’s successful. We’ll assess what they’re doing, how it affects graduation rates and how much it costs.
We want to close the achievement gap and increase graduation rates—we’ll take ideas from anywhere. If we can improve graduation rates by 5 points in 5 years and 10 points in 10 years, that would put us at 86 percent in 10 years. That means kindergarten readiness, third grade math, 10th grade science … if you’ve got ideas that are going to improve those things we’re all ears and my assumption is so is the WEA.
PubliCola is excited to welcome Niki Reading to our news team. Reading has covered state government and politics in Washington for five years at The News Tribune and TVW, where she wrote the excellent nerdy news blog, The Capitol Record. She has also worked for The Associated Press covering state government in Oregon. Reading will be posting a regular preview of the week's action in Olympia and a regular re-cap featuring her pick for Olympia's newsmaker of the week.
Full disclosure: Reading is married to the state senate Democrats' Deputy Chief of Staff, Jeff Reading. —Eds.