The education reform bill we've been writing about all session passed the House this morning (it passed the Senate in early February. Now it has to be reconciled and sent to the governor.)
Education reformers, including outspoken state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, had been critical of the bill, calling for amendments that would have imposed more uniform teacher evaluation standards as well as more data driven evaluation standards. Those amendments, reformers argued, were key to meeting the Obama Administration's call for education reform—and getting $250 million in federal money from the president's Race to the Top program.
A last-ditch attempt to pass those amendments by GOP Rep. Skip Priest (R-30) failed in committee late last month. (Similar amendments sponsored by Republican Sen. Curtis King (R-14) failed in the Senate in early February.) They were not reintroduced on the floor today.
The amendments were opposed by the teachers union (the Washington Education Association), and found zero traction with the majority Democrats, one of whom told me privately that the Democratic reformers supported the amendments, but "couldn't poke the union in the eye." (The WEA stresses local control vs. a uniform approach.)
Asked point-blank if the Democrats had caved to the union, Rep. Tina Orwall (D-33)—the Democrats' House lead on the bill—said, "I'm very excited about the reforms we're passing."
The bill does include innovations that are on the Obama Administration's checklist, such as allowing alternative teacher certifications and establishing a system for dealing with consistently failing schools.
And even Superintendent Dorn, contacted after the bill passed, called it a "good bill that brings us closer" to qualifying for Race to the Top money. "If we do not pass this bill I believe we would not have qualified."
And while the amendments that Dorn called for about teacher evaluations didn't pass, he did praise the teacher evaluation rules that did, saying, "we now have data connected to evaluations. ... It used to just be a principal coming in for a half hour and assessing a teacher." The changes aren't quite the uniform standards for evaluating teachers statewide that Dorn wanted, but they do tie evaluations to sets of objective data.
Dorn also praised the bill for establishing a pilot project that would test the concept of uniform standards. His office will report on the results next year. Rep. Orwall said: "There is an expectation we will come back next year and follow those recommendations."
Ironically, the 15 state finalists in round one for RTTT grants (plus Washington, DC) were announced today. (Washington state is applying in round two.)
Dorn acknowledged that "while many of the finalists, including Florida, had bold plans," with the kind of innovations the feds were looking for, he also pointed out that those plans "weren't realistic because they didn't have the support in the rank and file schools." This seemed like a recognition that his preference for state control (as opposed to the WEA's district control approach) may sound good in theory, but isn't practical. Compromise solutions—like the bill passed in the House today—may prove to be the best models.
Gov. Chris Gregoire agrees. Gregoire spokesman Viet Shelton tells PubliCola: "It's significant that the 15 states plus D.C. had such varied applications—some stressed charter schools, others stressed accountability, others student data, and others stressed teacher evaluations. And this puts emphasis on the upcoming oral presentations [to the feds] where we think a significant criteria for the states is to demonstrate that the policies in their applications are not just words on paper, but that they can be implemented on the ground, meaning you need buy-in."
Re: Charter schools—anathema in Washington state and not covered in Olympia's education reform bill—Dorn did note that 15 of the 16 finalists announced today had charter school plans—another pet cause of the Obama administration.
GOP Rep. Doug Erickesn (R-42, Bellingham suburbs) offered a charter school amendment today.
It failed. "It's good to be in agreement with the president sometimes," Ericksen said, explaining that while he disagrees with Obama's health care plan, "I think he's doing good stuff on charter schools. The president loves this amendment."