State scrambles to preserve No Child Left Behind funds

Staff writerFebruary 20, 2014 

Education leaders in Olympia are scrambling to find a path forward after the state Senate voted down legislation aimed at keeping Washington’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Gov. Jay Inslee is meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan Sunday to see if the U.S. Department of Education would be willing to extend the state’s waiver without an act of the state Legislature, said Jaime Smith, Inslee’s spokeswoman.

The state Senate defeated a bill Tuesday that would have required student scores on statewide tests to be part of teacher and principal evaluations. It’s a fix the federal government has requested in order for Washington to retain its No Child Left Behind waiver, as well as the flexibility to spend $38 million in federal education funds.

Smith said that Inslee hopes to learn during the meeting with Duncan whether an extension of Washington’s waiver could be granted without changes to the state’s new teacher evaluation law, which is being implemented for the first time this year.

“He wants to get guidance or direction as to whether there is a way forward with the U.S. Department of Education, or whether we need to continue pressing on with a legislative solution,” Smith said Thursday.

State law in Washington already requires that student test scores play a significant role in teacher evaluations. But districts can choose which tests they will use: school-based, classroom-based, statewide or district-wide.

Because of that issue, the U.S. Department of Education told state officials in August that Washington is at “high-risk status” of losing its waiver for the coming 2014-15 school year.

Losing the waiver would mean school districts throughout the state would have to redirect an estimated $38 million in federal education funding toward private tutoring efforts, rather than spending the money on district programs for poor and disadvantaged students.

It also would mean nearly every school in the state would be labeled as failing, and school administrators would have to send letters home to parents notifying them of their schools' failing status.

Smith said that since there are only three weeks left of the state legislative session, the governor wants to get feedback from the U.S. Department of Education quickly.

“We don’t have a lot of time left,” Smith said.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also is working to get Washington’s waiver extended, though she “can’t offer any blanket assurances the waiver will be granted,” her spokesman, Matt McAlvanah, said this week.

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is asking for a one-year extension of the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver. But State Superintendent Randy Dorn said he is doubtful that the extension will be granted -- despite appeals by Inslee and Murray -- if no change to state law is in the works.

“I believe we need a piece of legislation,” Dorn said. “I think the Department of Education has been real clear.”

With that in mind, Dorn’s office is working with lawmakers to revive some form of the failed legislation.

All but one member of the Democratic Senate minority voted against the evaluation bill Tuesday, joining seven members of the Republican-dominated majority to strike it down on a key deadline for bills to advance to the next chamber. Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, was the only person in the Democratic caucus who supported the bill.

Similar legislation in the state House never made it out of the Education Committee.

Still, Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said she is optimistic that the bill can be revived. She said many Senate Democrats voted against the bill because they didn’t want to disrupt the state’s new teacher evaluation system. Several Democratic senators also thought the vote was rushed, Nelson said.

“It’s not a dead issue,” Nelson said Thursday. “We’re talking to the House now that the bill failed here to see what is the right solution.”

Sen. Steve Litzow, a Mercer Island Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has accused the Democrats of caving to pressure from the state teachers union.

“Ever since the Democrats have been in the minority all they’ve been doing is standing up and yelling, ‘We need more money, we need more money,” Litzow said. “Now they’re saying, ‘Well, we need more money unless we need to hold people accountable for it, and we don’t like that. So we’re not going to take this $40 million.’”

State Rep. Ross Hunter, a Democrat from Medina who is the House’s chief budget writer, said he doesn’t know why Senate Democrats voted against a bill that mirrored legislation sponsored by a Democratic senator earlier this year.

“I have no idea what was wrong with the bill,” Hunter said Thursday. “I agree with the basic sentiment.”

“We will see how we will resolve the problem, which I think we will be able to do,” Hunter said.

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