Inslee shift on grading of schools irks state GOP

The Seattle TimesApril 6, 2013 

Gov. Jay Inslee distanced himself this week from a campaign proposal to grade schools A-F, telling some lawmakers he wants the issue more carefully studied.

The Democratic governor’s opposition to Senate Bill 5328 represents a blow to a top priority of Republicans seeking to shake up public education – and a shift from Inslee’s full-throated endorsement of letter grades during the campaign.

“Without a doubt, it would have been much easier if the governor had maintained his position,” said state Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, who called Inslee’s new stance surprising and disappointing.

The bill narrowly passed the Senate last month but has stalled in the House.

Under the proposal, school grading would start in a pilot program this fall and be based on test scores, graduation rates, college readiness and other factors.

The grades are meant to clearly convey school performance, increase accountability and spur parent involvement. But the state teachers union and others view grades as an oversimplification, noting the state already has an achievement index that describes schools in adjective form.

The education platform on Inslee’s campaign website vows to “institute a system of public accountability that gives a grade to every high school, middle school and elementary school.” Candidate Inslee clarified in interviews with reporters and advocacy groups that he meant a letter grade.

Gov. Inslee still prefers an A-F school-grading system, according to his staff members. But he doesn’t like the details of Senate Bill 5328, and he’s open to other metrics.

“What I saw in the campaign is that he supported a letter grade as a way to be efficient and accountable to our public,” said Mary Alice Heuschel, the governor’s chief of staff and a former Renton school superintendent. “The bottom line is that he is committed to making sure there is an effective and efficient way to communicate school performance ... whether that is a grade or number or label or anything else.”

Inslee’s shift comes during an important week for K-12 education policy.

Wednesday marked the cutoff for nonbudget-related legislation that passed one chamber to make it through a committee in the other. All bills that failed are now theoretically dead, although proposals are sometimes revived when seen as important to a budget deal.

Ahead of the cutoff, the education committees in the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-run Senate each declined to vote on bills valued by the other.

In particular, the House committee didn’t vote on the grading bill or another contentious proposal to allow principals to reject teachers assigned to their building.

The committee also scaled back several bills.

The Senate version of one proposal, for example, would require students who fail the state’s third-grade reading test to repeat the grade, go to summer school or participate in another intensive program. The House version instead focuses more on funding early-grade reading programs. For anything to pass, the chambers will have to reconcile their differences.

Some of the most difficult negotiations may surround the A-F grading bill.

Despite the bill not making it out of the House committee, Senate Republican leaders signaled they will make the proposal a priority during end-of-session budget negotiations.

“We’ll be looking at investing something like $1 billion in our schools,” said state Sen. Steve Litzow, a Mercer Island Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “With that kind of investment, we need to ensure that we get outcomes for students.”

The bill is based on a system implemented in Florida by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999.

Several studies have indicated the system and other education-policy changes raised test scores. Opponents say there is more to education than test scores.

Bush has since founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education to push his policy ideas.

School-grading laws now exist in 11 states, according to the foundation.

In Washington, the push began when Bush attended a June fundraiser for GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna.

A foundation spokeswoman said the group worked with Litzow on the bill language. The proposal was thought to have a better chance than other GOP education proposals because it was supported by Inslee during the campaign.

Republicans, upset about losing that advantage, accused the governor of flip-flopping. “‘I support school grading; now I don’t support school grading,’” said Cathy Dahlquist, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, mocking Inslee’s positions. “He seems very conflicted.”

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