State rejection of K-12 money will be hard to explain

The News TribuneMarch 9, 2014 

Imagine that you’re a voter, ballot in hand, as you decide whether to vote yes or no on your local school levy.

You generally support public education. But you’ve been officially notified that the schools your children attend are “failing.”

You also know that state lawmakers – under pressure from the teachers union – have forfeited roughly $40 million a year in federal funding for needy students. As a result, that money is being spent to drive your children elsewhere or provide private tutoring to make up for the deficiencies of their “failing” schools.

Why? Because the Washington Education Association and the legislators it intimidates refused to require the use of objective statewide tests in evaluations of teachers and principals.

They don’t oppose test data in principle: They’re OK with a patchwork of local tests that vary from one district to the next. But a test that allows your child’s class to be compared with classes across the state? To Washington’s K-12 establishment, that’s somehow intolerable.

While the Legislature – as of this writing – continues to dither about using statewide data in evaluations, there’s too little discussion of how citizens might react to its decision.

Kissing off $40 million a year, when education officials are pleading poverty, could be hard to explain. Poorer districts need that money. Tacoma Public Schools alone stands to lose $2 million.

Washington’s schools continue to receive the funding by virtue of an exemption from the draconian penalties of No Child Left Behind, a 2001 law that demanded that every child in the nation be performing at grade level in reading and math this year.

The state data requirement is a condition of that evaluation. Washington has shamefully fought the Obama administration ever since it began pushing for greater school accountability in 2009. But on this issue, time’s up. The U.S. Department of Education has served notice that Washington will lose the waiver – and the classroom money – if the 2014 Legislature doesn’t adopt that mandate.

With the loss of the money come the rest of NCLB’s sanctions, including the required declaration that most of the state’s public schools are failing.

Two weeks ago, when the Senate rejected the linkage of state tests with evaluations, there was some doubt – denial, really – that Education Secretary Arne Duncan would actually yank Washington’s NCLB waiver.

Since then, Gov. Jay Inslee has flown to Washington, D.C., talked to Duncan and come back with an unambiguous message: Get the requirement into law this session.

The session adjourns this Thursday.

Lawmakers can find excuses, run out the clock, stay on the good side of the teachers union – and throw away those millions of dollars.But for the local schools they’d be putting at risk, the consequences may be greater than anyone realizes.

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