No agreement on how to handle teacher evaluation dispute

Staff writerJanuary 30, 2014 

State officials were told months ago that Washington must change its teacher and principal evaluation system or else lose its waiver from some of the more onerous provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Now, almost a third of the way through the 2014 legislative session, state lawmakers can’t seem to agree on whether the Legislature must act this year, or whether it is best to leave the state’s nascent teacher evaluation protocol alone.

In August, the U.S. Department of Education placed Washington state on “high-risk status” of losing its waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act for the 2014-15 school year. Losing the waiver would mean that school districts throughout the state would have to repurpose $44 million in Title I education funds, which some districts have said means they’d have to cut programs.

Education leaders in the state Senate — both Republicans and Democrats — say the Legislature must change state law to require teacher evaluations to incorporate students’ scores on statewide tests.

State law already requires that student growth data be a significant factor in teacher and principal evaluations. But current law allows the districts to decide which tests to use: classroom-based, school-based, district-based or statewide.

The U.S. Department of Education has set a May deadline for the state to change the system in order to keep its waiver.

But leaders in the Democrat-controlled state House aren’t that concerned about the federal ultimatum.

Neither is Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who told reporters Tuesday that he’s hesitant to support changes the state’s new teacher evaluation system, which is being implemented for the first time this year.

Rather, some Democrats are hoping that the state’s congressional delegation will persuade U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education to grant Washington a waiver anyway, even if state lawmakers fail to specify which tests must play a role in teacher evaluations.

“We’ve been trying to work with our congressional delegation to try to convince Secretary Duncan,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “That’s at least for now where we should focus our attention.”

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction maintains the belief that lawmakers must take action this session, or the state will lose its No Child Left Behind waiver, said Alan Burke, OSPI’s deputy superintendent of K-12 education.

Lobbying by the state’s members of Congress – who have already written the U.S. Department of Education on Washington’s behalf – is “highly unlikely” to work, Burke said.

“So many states have been denied waivers because they can’t take care of this teacher evaluation issue,” Burke said. “I think it’s highly unlikely to assume our congressional delegation could call and (the department) could all of a sudden, ‘voila,’ change the rules for Washington, and tell all the other states they didn’t mean it.”

Senate education leaders are trying to address the problem themselves, rather than relying on members of Congress. A Senate education panel last week advanced a bill that would not only require students’ scores on statewide tests to be used in teacher and principal evaluations, but also specifies how.

Sen. Steve Litzow, who chairs the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, said it is important for the Legislature to give school districts direction in how to use the statewide tests.

“We don’t want to have to come back next year when people say, ‘I don’t know what that means, or how to use it,’ ” said Litzow, a Mercer Island Republican who is sponsoring Senate Bill 5246.

Litzow’s bill went beyond what Democrats on his committee were willing to support, however. Several Democratic members voted against the measure, saying they favored no-frills legislation that only addressed the use of statewide tests as evaluation criteria.

Litzow’s proposal also will face opposition in the Democrat-controlled state House, which has yet to consider any legislation that would address the federal government’s teacher evaluation requirements.

State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said she has maintained “deep concerns about whether it was appropriate” to change the state’s new teacher and principal evaluation system.

At a hearing before the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee earlier in the session, both the Seattle and Tacoma school districts asked that the law be fixed, fearing the loss of programs aimed at struggling low-income students.

Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said Wednesday that while she anticipates union objections to the Senate proposal, her main priority is to maintain her district’s use of Title I funds.

“I could live with it, because we would keep our waiver money,” Santorno said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209

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