One of the biggest issues of the legislative session has been (and will continue to be) education: With the Supreme Court’s determination in the McCleary case that the Legislature has not done it’s primary duty to fully fund schools, the Legislature is compelled to find extra cash for K-12.

The decision explicitly calls for more funding, but the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus has made it a point to focus on reforms before they discuss the balance sheet. This week, they passed 14 bills to reform schools, several with bipartisan support. The bills include a couple of major challenges to the status quo including "mutual consent"—which allows principals to turn away teachers reassigned to their school during layoffs —and a bill that would mean students who don't pass third grade reading assessments may be held back a year.  

The reform effort earned Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina), the leader of the MCC, the Capitol Newsmaker of the Week. I talked to him Thursday afternoon.

Image: Josh Feit

PubliCola: The Senate passed 14 bills this week to reform education. Sen. Bruce Dammeier (R-25, Puyallup) [sponsor of the third grader bill] told the AP that some of these bills represent “disruptive change." What’s the MCC’s vision for education and how is it disruptively different than the current system?

Tom: I think the whole purpose of what we’re trying to do is really make sure that our kids have the tools and skills and knowledge where they’re going to be able to compete.  It’s not so much a mandate from McCleary but a mandate from a very competitive global environment. If we don’t have an education system that accommodates that, we’re going to pay the price via an increased social cost: We’re not going to have a tax base, and we’re not going to have an employee base.

To me, I’ve always said if I could just buy my way in education, I’d do it. It would have been a lot easier to me to stay with the caucus and just write checks but I don’t think we can get there that way. I don’t want us to be five years down the road and in the same position and going, Oh shoot, what now?
Our whole focus is on let’s understand that yes we are going to increase funding but let’s make sure that what we do actually moves the needle.

PubliCola: The Legislature recently passed comprehensive education reforms that are still going into effect. Is it your opinion that those reforms don’t do enough?

"Some will say we’re getting all this stuff from ALEC. I personally have never read anything from ALEC. I have read pretty extensively what Arne Duncan and Obama [are] trying to accomplish."

Tom: This is not me about saying the reforms are not substantial enough. In Race to the Top, Washington finished 32nd out of 36 states. The Obama administration is saying we’re just not cutting it. If you look at what President Obama has advocated for and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, that’s our message: We’re for more alignment with the president on his education policy.

[Editor's Note: Tom is correct about Washington state's lackluster showing in Obama's RTTT program. We covered the state's failed effort closely at the time.]

PubliCola: Do these changes meet the requirements under McCleary to fully fund education?

Tom: We will add money. Now, do I think it takes new taxes to add a greater prioritization to education? I don’t. I think that’s one of our primary differences. As a government, that’s where we’ve lost trust with the voters: Every time we need new money, we bring out education, the elderly, and the disabled. Let’s fund those core elements first.

PubliCola: Will it be a billion dollars?  

Tom: I don’t know if we’ve settled on a hard number. But it will be a substantial number. It will definitely be north of $500 million. I know of no organization where you can hold people accountable where they don’t have the responsibility, that’s why things like the mutual consent bill are so important. I haven’t been to a single great school that didn’t have a great principal. Some of these aren’t real sophisticated business concepts.

PubliCola: Let’s talk about that focus on the students: The third grade reading bill seems like it would have a host of unintended consequences. If kids knew they could be held back if they don’t perform well on a single test in third grade, won’t half of them be crying under their desk at test time?

Tom: Look, I think this should be like the WASL. When my kids would take it, they’d say this is a joke. We need to make sure we have kids so prepared when they’re coming into this that it’s not a challenge.
If a child isn’t reading by third grade, the chances of getting back to grade level are one in eight. And if a child isn’t reading at grade level in third grade, they’re four times more likely to drop out of school.

Gov. Gregoire was always right on top of this – that is our dropout problem. If you get these kids early enough and build these positive spirals of success, then you don’t have these issues. I’m a big believer in early childhood education. I’m not for all-day K for all kids. I’d rather go deep into early learning knowing that we don’t have unlimited funding. Let’s take the bottom 40 percent of earners and make sure that they have the same opportunities that my children or your children would have.

Image: Josh Feit

PubliCola: What’s the status of negotiations with the house? Is the plan to pass your full agenda and sort it out in end-of-session negotiations or do you have any sense of whether these are viable bills?

Tom: I think that there’s recognition that we need to do more. In private conversations with different members, a lot of them like some of these reforms. As radical as some people might paint them, quite frankly they really are out of what Obama has recommended, like a true grading scale when it came to Race to the Top. Let’s use what the Obama administration thought were innovations and reforms that we need to really move our education system forward.

Some will say we’re getting all this stuff from ALEC. I personally have never read anything from ALEC. I have read pretty extensively what Arne Duncan and Obama were trying to accomplish with Race to the Top.

[Editor's Note: ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a legislative services group that a now-famous New York Times expose outed as a stealth conservative lobbying organization.]

"I never like to get overconfident but I am very confident ... I think we will surprise the naysayers." 

PubliCola: You mentioned you think you can add substantial money to K-12 without adding new revenue. That means substantial cuts elsewhere: Do you have any items you can identify now that will be cut?

Tom: Committee chairs are still going through that process. We'll come out with a budget sometime between the 27th and the 31st and we'll lay out a comprehensive program at that point in time.
You have to remember – we have $2.1 billion more this biennium than last biennium. Olympia always likes to control the conversation. You can look at it that we have a deficit. You can also look at it that we have more money that we did last biennium.

PubliCola: Sure, but a large part of the reason we have a projected shortfall is that caseloads increase -- there are more children in schools, more people depending on state services. Do you reject that idea?

Tom: I’m saying it’s valid but I’m saying I’m a big believer in what former Gov. Gary Locke did with priorities of government. You need to force some of these expenditures into A category, B category and C categories. Let’s make sure that we’re doing that.

PubliCola: Passing these bills is another landmark for the MCC. With such a small majority, I think a number of people have been counting down the days until the MCC falls apart.

Tom: I never like to get overconfident but I am very confident that if you look at the base of what we’ve all signed onto—and that is a focus on jobs, the economy, a world-class education system and a sustainable budget—all of us are locked into that and very comfortable with that and I think we will surprise the naysayers. 

For the session's previous Capitol Newsmakers of the Week start here. Not that we're keeping score, but the tally so far is three Democrats to four Republicans. The GOP pulled ahead this week when Niki picked Tom. (We didn't award a Newsmaker of the Week for Week 6.)

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