Olympia Outtake: Week 1, All Governance Is Local?

DIY governance is au courant in Olympia.

By Josh Feit January 17, 2014

Every Friday, I'm going to identify a startling moment from Olympia; something that either clarifies the legislative session storyline, changes the debate, or, as with this week's instance, captures a larger political trend in motion.

The trend I'm noticing? Call it DIY governance or tactical localism or whatever you want, but devolution from the federal and state government to counties and cities—and in the instance that came up this week, even school districts—is au courant.

The trend I'm noticing? Call it DIY governance or tactical localism or whatever you want, but devolution from the federal and state government to counties and even cities is au courant.

On Wednesday, the senate education committee heard testimony about a batch of education reform bills that are attempting to tweak teacher evaluation rules—to prevent the feds from taking away a waiver to federal standards and dictating how $38 million is spent locally—by mandating that statewide tests are part of the equation.

The federal No Child Left Behind rules require state testing to be a factor in teacher evaluations (as a way of measuring student improvement) as opposed to classroom-based, school-based, and district-based testing; current Washington state law only says that state testing "can" be a factor.

We summarized the debate in Fizz earlier this week, noting that the teachers' union was against making the change and reform activists and district administrators were for it.

The picayune specifics of this ongoing intractable debate between the union and so-called reformers over teacher evaluations aside, a larger theme about 2014 emerged when teachers' union leader Lucinda Young testified.

This bit of Young's testimony, coming after the superintendent of Tacoma Schools and an administrator from Seattle Public Schools, hit me over the head:

If Seattle and Tacoma want to keep the flexibility with that money, they can get their own waiver. The state is not the only entity that can request that waiver. So they [Seattle and Tacoma] can negotiate with the federal government to get that waiver and then negotiate with their teachers as to how that state test is going to help them be better teachers. Any school district in our state can do that.

"The state is not the only entity that can request that waiver [from federal goals]."  Young's sarcastic dig about "how the state test is going to help them" was certainly a funny line, but it was her dramatic offer to Seattle and Tacoma to go it alone (both districts would lose money if the federal waiver was pulled, unlike some smaller districts) that struck me.

Just like King County Executive Dow Constantine, who recently announced that the state's "ongoing failure" to help fund Metro had forced the county to take measures into its own hands, Young, though for different reasons, was hitting the same concept that seems, more and more to be in the ether these days as an acceptable, and even preferable form of governance.

I've got mixed feelings about the DIY trend, and I imagine it would require a whole rewrite of Federalist theory, but it's undeniable that people are thinking that all governance is local these days.

For the record, while Young is right that it's possible for school districts themselves to deal with the feds to extend their waivers and control their money, it's not likely, says Kristen Jaudon, a spokeswoman for the state school superintendent's office.

Jaudon reports that it's only happened one time, when a group of eight California districts representing one million students struck a deal with the feds in August. (Seattle plus Tacoma represents 85,000 students, and all of Washington state has one million students).

Young says that Washington's Deputy Superintendent Alan Burke asked Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan point blank if local districts could get their own waiver and was told it was unlikely unless the district was as big as the group in California. Additionally, when the California schools got the waiver, the feds explicitly said it was not to be taken as a precedent.

Interesting, though, that they felt compelled to even provide that cautionary note against local rumblings.

Show Comments