Politics & Government

Peter Callaghan: State risks $44 million over educator-evaluation squabble

Legislative Democratic leaders have a new myth to go along with their longtime favorite, the Loophole Fairy.

The Loophole Fairy fuels the belief that every tough budget problem would magically disappear if only Congress could close unneeded tax breaks. While such loopholes may exist, the political will to close any is in short supply.

But a new myth has emerged to excuse lawmakers — especially those who control the House of Representatives — from making a key change to the existing law governing teacher and principal evaluations: the myth that congressional delegations have power over the Department of Education.

This is not a harmless myth. At risk is the state’s current waiver from the most onerous consequences of the 2002 federal law known as No Child Left Behind. That law passed with bipartisan support and with good intentions of raising the quality of public education. In practice, however, it set unrealistic targets and by now would have labeled nearly every school in the state as “failing.”

Congress has been unable or unwilling to fix the flaws. So the Obama administration has offered to grant waivers from the law’s harshest sanctions if states agree to increase school accountability, boost college and career readiness, and work at making sure all students are in quality schools.

The carrot was the waiver. The stick was NCLB sanctions such as redirecting federal money for high-poverty schools. Failing schools would also have to send a letter to parents saying they were failing and allow transfers to better-performing schools.

While the letters might be embarrassing, and few succeeding state schools could admit transfers, the real pain would be the loss of $44 million in so-called Title I funds.

The state already has done the hardest work. The Legislature approved an evaluation system requiring that student growth data — known as test scores to nonbureaucrats — be a significant part of how teachers and principals are evaluated.

But the federal government said the state system falls short in one important aspect. Rather than require the use of statewide tests when they are available in a given subject area, current law says any number of tests can be used. Those could include classroom-based, school-based, or district-based tests.

In a letter last summer, Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle repeated what her office has been telling the state for two years. If the state wants to keep its waiver, it has to change its law to mandate statewide tests.

That’s what state school Superintendent Randy Dorn promised he would try to do. And his office submitted a bill to the Legislature to preserve the waiver and the $44 million in money for high-poverty schools.

One version of that bill, sponsored by Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, was approved in the Senate education committee Monday. Committee Democrats, led by Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe of Bothell, support the concept but not Litzow’s version, which contains other issues that threaten to drag the bill down.

Political leaders of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses are siding with the Washington Education Association position that the feds are bluffing. On Monday, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan relied on the myth that the education department can be lobbied or pressured to continue the waiver without requiring state tests.

“Our congressional delegation has been pretty unified to convince Arne Duncan to change his mind on that,” the Covington Democrat said of the Education secretary.

Sullivan might be referring to a letter signed by the state’s Democratic members of Congress and distributed by the WEA that appears to show the delegation trying to lobby on behalf of the waiver.

“We write you today in strong support of the renewal of Washington state’s flexibility waiver for the 2014-15 school year,” the letter to Duncan says. Lawmakers touted the progress made by the state and complained that Duncan placed the state on “at-risk” status. Unfortunately, the letter does not actually ask him to let the state get by without changing its testing law.

Instead, it asks Duncan to “keep our thoughts in mind” as he “considers the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s request for flexibility renewal.” But as already noted, the OSPI’s request is dependent on the Legislature fixing the law and changing the evaluations requirement by May. Dorn said Monday that he sees zero chance of keeping the waiver without the change.

This is not about testing in evaluations. That issue has been decided. It is about which tests. Banking on the Department of Education absolving a state from its well-known testing protocols is a dream — or a $44 million nightmare if it proves to be unrealized.