State Senate, House divided on education issues

Key sticking point is how to come up with the money

msantos@theolympian.comMay 6, 2013 

Republicans in the state Senate want to revive a handful of controversial education-reform measures during upcoming budget negotiations, including giving principals veto authority over teacher transfers, assigning letter grades to schools, and intervening when students can’t read well by third grade.

The leader of the conservative-leaning Senate majority said that those three proposals, which stalled in the Democratic-led state House, will be used as bargaining chips when lawmakers reconvene May 13 for a special session to finalize a budget.

Lawmakers are under a court order to fully fund basic education in Washington state by 2018, and both parties are looking to increase education spending by roughly $1 billion in the 2013-2015 biennium as a down payment on that obligation.

They disagree, however, on taxes. House Democrats want to raise $900 million by extending expiring tax hikes and eliminating tax exemptions, while Senate leaders oppose any tax increases.

Sen. Rodney Tom, a Medina Democrat who leads the Senate majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, said that a lack of action on some of the Senate’s priority education reforms — as well as the weakening of a few bills that did pass — “is one of the sticking points on the budget.”

“If you look at what happened in the House, they gutted a lot of those bills that we sent over,” Tom said Thursday. “We’re not going to just throw dollars at the wall. We want fundamental changes to improve our system.”

Rep. Ross Hunter, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said that he is willing to consider negotiating on some education policies in exchange for a budget deal, but it can’t be a free-for-all.

“What the Senate can’t do is say, ‘We passed 200 bills that you didn’t act on and you need to act on all of them or we won’t vote on the budget,’” said Hunter, a Medina Democrat, in an interview last week. “That’s not a reasonable approach.”

One education priority for the Senate majority is a measure to let principals reject teachers that districts try to place at their school, Tom said.

Districts often transfer staff between schools based on staffing needs, which are determined by student enrollment.

Senate Bill 5242 would require a principal and a teacher to have a “mutual agreement” for that teacher to be placed at the principal’s school. Teachers who are rejected by a principal would be subject to temporary assignment by their school districts, and could be fired if a permanent position isn’t found for them within eight months.

The state teachers union and Gov. Jay Inslee oppose the bill, saying that it eliminates teachers’ due process rights.

“It’s not mutual consent. It’s not mutual agreement. It’s basically eliminating local districts’ flexibility to design staffing policies, and trampling fairness and due process,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association.

The bill sponsor, Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said that principals should have a say in who works at their schools if they are to be held accountable for their schools’ performance.

Tom said that the mutual consent policy would give principals the control they need to create the best possible learning environment for their students.

“Right now, we’re just not giving principals that authority,” Tom said.

Talk of giving principals more say in teacher placement was a key factor in a 2011 teacher strike in Tacoma. As part of an agreement to end the strike, Tacoma spent eight months developing a new teacher reassignment policy. The new Tacoma system, which went into effect in fall 2012, allows teacher reassignments to be decided by a three-member committee consisting of a principal and two teachers.

If the Senate’s proposal to give principals more sway were to become law, Tacoma’s current system would be allowed to continue until the teachers’ contract expires in August 2014. After that, Tacoma’s committee decision-making process would have to go.

Adrienne Dale, president of the Tacoma Education Association, said that Tacoma’s system should become a model for the rest of the state — not the Senate’s proposal, which she said gives too much power to principals.

“There’s a lot better way to do it than what they’re trying,” Dale said.

Senate leaders also are still pushing a plan to assign all schools a letter grade based on measurements such as test scores and graduation rates.

Tom said giving letter grades to schools is important if the state is going to enforce higher performance standards and target persistently low-achieving schools.

“We all know what A, B, C, D, F means,” Tom said. “Until you have that kind of clarity, I don’t think you can have that kind of pressure built into the system.”

Democrats in both chambers of the Legislature largely opposed the school-grading proposal, saying it would oversimplify complex assessments of how schools are doing.

The letter-grades-for-schools measure passed the state Senate 26-23, but didn’t make it through the House Education Committee.

Another priority bill for the Senate coalition during upcoming budget negotiations deals with improving third-graders’ reading proficiency. When it was first introduced, the measure would have forced students to repeat third grade if they didn’t pass a state reading test. The proposal has since been amended to focus on identifying and assisting third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level, without requiring that the students be held back.

Still, the third-grade reading measure didn’t make it to the House floor for a vote during the regular legislative session.

Dave Powell, lobbyist for the education reform group Stand for Children, said House leaders may have to reconsider some of the Senate’s education reform proposals if they want to move forward with tax increases. Stand for Children supports many of the reform ideas touted by the Senate majority, including grading schools and giving school principals authority over teacher placement.

Hunter, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, said he is open to some discussion about “reasonable reform ideas that improve outcomes for children.”

But lawmakers can’t forget the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision specifically directed them to put more money toward reducing class sizes and funding all-day kindergarten, he said.

“What I want to be clear about is the McCleary decision is about funding,” Hunter said. “It’s not about ed reform.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209

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