This Washington

The $250 Million Question: Will the Governor's Education Bill Get a Good Enough Grade from the Feds?

By Josh Feit January 20, 2010

In yesterday's Morning Fizz, we reported that two former nemeses—education reform advocates like the State Board of Education vs. the teachers union, the Washington Education Association (WEA)—were in accord this year on Gov. Chris Gregoire's new education bill, a follow-up to the bill that passed over WEA's objections last year.

Last year's bill set the stage for changes to the way the state holds the education system accountable for student achievement—doing things like changing the definition of basic education (making it more comprehensive) and calling for ways to evaluate teachers.

The new bill is significant because Washington State is trying to improve its standards to meet the requirements of President Obama's Race to the Top (RTTT) program, which is giving out billions in grants to states to help fund education. Washington State could stand to get $250 million for K-12 education.

Brad Jupp, a Senior Program Officer in the U.S. Dept. of Education who works in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's office, is in the state today to talk about President Obama's priorities in Olympia. We talked to him while he passed through Seattle.

Jupp was brought to town by the Partnership for Learning, an education reform group that represents business interests. (PFL allied with SBE last year to spar with the WEA over last year's reform bill.)

Jupp couldn't directly address this year's bill because of the RTTT grant competition between states, but he did outline the Obama Administration's priorities. He said states need to have better data collection, better assessment standards, a better teaching workforce, and an ability to deal with failing schools. (As we reported in yesterday's fizz, the bill lays out how to deal with failing schools.)

Dan Weisberg, from the New Teachers Project, a research group whos work helped inform DOE's priorities, is in the state with Jupp. He said there are some good things about Gregoire's bill, like allowing alternative routes to teacher certification. But he pointed out what could be a problem with the governor's bill when it comes to meeting the new standards—it "pushes teacher evaluation down to the district level."

The problem is this: With 295 different ways to evaluate teachers, the data might not be meaningful. Local school districts are also constrained by union contracts, which may thwart attempts to get meaningful data on how teahers are performing, complicating evaluations even more.

WEA head Mary Lindquist defends localism, telling PubliCola that "one size doesn't fit all when it comes to school districts" and the local stakeholders are the ones who have the best vantage point to evaluate teachers.

Today, ironically, is the day that round one RTTT grant appliations are due to Duncan's DOE. Washington state did not apply because last year's starter bill didn't set actual systems and guidelines in place for the key elements, like teaher evaluation, that Jupp outlined.

Last year, we reported that Washington was in jeopardy of losing out on the RTTT money.

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