This Washington

Will Washington State Pass Education Reform Test?

By Josh Cohen February 4, 2010

Forty states got a significant head start, but Washington is finally trying to get in the race for Race To The Top money. RTTT is the Obama administration's $4 billion education reform competition that offers multi-million dollar payouts to states that align themselves with national standards, improve teacher and principal assessment standards, and improve the worst performing schools. Washington is setting itself up to compete this legislative session—though how well depends on who you ask—with three House bills (HB 3038, 3035, and 3059) and one amalgamated bill in the Senate (SB 6696).

The state is eligible for $150-250 million, a healthy chunk of money in these dire times, but a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.2 billion in cuts K-12 has already been dealt. Perhaps more important than the RTTT money at stake, Washington’s reforms now could impact its eligibility for significantly larger pools of federal funding, like Title 1, in the future.

President Obama and Ed Secretary Arne Duncan introduced RTTT in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. States submit applications and are assessed on four main criteria: Adopting education standards and assessments; building data systems to track student growth; recruiting, developing, and retaining better teachers for needy schools; and turning around the lowest-achieving schools. RTTT was broken into two phases. 40 states and the District of Columbia applied in phase one this January. Washington did not apply in the first round since meeting the RTTT deadline would have required changes to controversial legislation in last year's budget-centric session.

With the input from the Washington Education Association and the Board of Education (warring parties last session), Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed legislation to fix the lagging aspects of the state's education system and enter the second phase of RTTT this June. The Governor's work with a wide range of stakeholders, and particularly with the teacher’s union, will pay off in the competition.

The WEA's partnership is a significant change from last year when they directly opposed the governor's proposed reforms. They didn't like the idea that the state could come in and takeover failing schools, which the State Board of Education supported last year. Washington is one of the few states that does not have a way to intervene in a low-performing school and failing to have that power foiled any play at RTTT money. (Dealing with failing schools is a key component of Obama's agenda.)

However, another RTTT goal is local buy-in for reforming failing schools. Gregoire's legislation combines the two goals and reaches a compromise. The union wanted more local control of reform and this year they got it.

WEA President Mary Lindquist

“Though the pages and pages of criteria make it hard to say what's going to [ultimately] make a difference in RTTT, the Gov. has a strong base of support which plays in Washington’s favor,” said Washington Education Association president Mary Lindquist.

Mercer Island-area Rep. Marcie Maxwell's (D-41) bill, HB 3038 would allow the state to take prescribed actions to intervene in low performing schools, but only with local input. It would also require Washington to adopt the national math and reading standards outlined by the National Governors Association.

"This legislation is a good step in the right direction and the [proposals] for turning around the lowest-performing schools are particularly strong," said Chris Korsmo, League of Education Voter executive director. The League was insistent on the takover piece last year whether local control issues were addressed or not.

There are still disagreements, though.

San Juan County Rep. Dave Quall's (D-40) bill, HB 3035, tackles the evaluation and innovations of teachers and principals—subjective topics if ever there were any. The bill calls for a new teacher evaluation system based on evidence of student learning and growth. It would also require a teacher to work for three years in a district before they’re eligible for tenure as opposed to the current two.

The controversy doesn’t lie in the idea of reforming teacher evaluations as you might expect. It’s a question of whether or not the evaluation reforms go far enough.

Lindquist thinks so.

“The legislation this session addresses where some of the gaps in Washington’s reform are,” said Lindquist. “These reforms will be sufficient.”

But Shannon Campion, Stand for Children Washington Executive Director, and Korsmo say no, they do not.

“We’re still hoping we can make those pieces a bit stronger,” said Korsmo. “They’re not as bold as they need to be.”

Korsmo explained that as it’s written, the bill doesn’t establish a standard data set to use for evaluation and said that the state doesn’t have very good student growth data to begin with. The bill leaves it in the hands of each district to decide what data to use. Korsmo thinks the state needs to rely on the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to set the standards.

Campion says the teacher evaluations need to go further in order to align with the RTTT criteria. Stand for Children has been working to amend the bill in order to have the state develop a student growth metric and require that it’s used as the predominant factor in teacher and principal evaluations.

“Duncan has made it crystal clear that we need to do this in order to get the RTTT money,” said Campion. “It’s mind blowing that our state legislators aren’t being more aggressive in going after the $250 million at a time when they’re also making cuts to the budget.”

The final component of the reform legislation is Seatac area Rep. Tina Orwall’s (D-33) HB 3059. Her bill would expand options for teacher preparation and increase the number of pathways available for teacher certification. Currently, the majority of teachers in Washington get certified through education colleges and universities. This bill would make it easier for people with strong backgrounds in certain subjects—particularly for hard to fill positions like math and science—to get certified as teachers without going through a traditional ed school. It would also open the door to potentially bring Teach for America to Washington.

WEA president Linduist says that she’s excited about the reforms, regardless of whether Washington gets the RTTT money.

“This is good policy. It'll be good for WA whether or not we get RTTT which is the most important thing,” said Lindquist. “It’s important to put forth sound education policies for the kids in our schools.”

The League of Education Voter’s Korsmo emphasized that reforming now is not only important for the sake of students, but will have impacts far beyond RTTT.

“When the Obama administration reauthorizes the Elementary Education Act and look at reimplementing Title 1 money, they'll look at changes made in RTTT,” said Korsmo. “This is not a 10-years-down-the-road thing. We could be looking at these changes in the last half of the next biennium.”
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