Are weak teaching evaluations worth $44 million?

Thousand-dollar bills must be piled up like snow drifts around the state Capitol this year. Why else would Olympia’s Democrats — and at least a few of its Republicans — be willing to kiss off up to $44 million a year in federal funding for Washington’s schools?

What, education dollars are actually scarce? That makes the Senate’s rejection of a cash-preserving school bill especially bizarre.

The bill is modest, though the state teacher’s union has made opposition to it a political litmus test this election year. It would clarify that teacher evaluations must include student performance data as measured by statewide tests.

It boils down to a word: “must” vs. “can.” Right now the law allows school districts to use state tests – or select or invent their own. A hodgepodge of tests that differs from one place to another is useless as a way of holding schools and districts accountable.

Teaching effectiveness can’t be gauged by “student growth” data alone; classroom observations are equally important. But hard data — measured on a statewide scale — is crucial.

The U.S. Department of Education, which has been pushing for better student growth measures across the nation, has given Washington a temporary waiver from the draconian No Child Left Behind law.

Without that waiver, $38 million to $44 million of federal money now targeted at poor students will get siphoned out of the classrooms. Districts would have to repurpose it to tutoring the children or giving them rides to other schools. Tacoma, a high-poverty district, stands to get slammed by $2 million a year.

But the waiver depends on adoption of the “must” language of Senate Bill 5246, which now stands rejected. The Washington Education Association and the Democrats it intimidates claim the problem can be fixed with a little pressure on U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Sen. Patty Murray will say the word, supposedly, and Duncan will cave on the demand for statewide measures.

Unless he doesn’t. The Education Department hasn’t been caving on similar appeals from other accountability-averse states. That $38 million-plus is very much at risk if the Legislature doesn’t resurrect SB 5246.

The House doesn’t get a pass here: It didn’t even bring the measure up for a vote. Nor do the seven Senate Republicans who joined Democrats in rejecting the bill.

This isn’t just about federal money. More important, it’s about moving schools into an era where performance can be measured and compared, and classroom problems can be diagnosed and solved. Students deserve no less.