Schools didn’t fail; union-beholden lawmakers did

A few weeks hence, parents across the state will be getting letters telling them that their children’s schools are failures. The letters — mandated by federal No Child Left Behind law — will be lying.

The failure lies in the Legislature. Specifically it lies with lawmakers — mostly Democrats — who lacked the moral and political spine last spring to buck an unhinged state teachers union and do the right thing for kids.

The compulsory letters are hardly the worst consequence of lawmakers’ failure.

Of far great magnitude is the loss of school districts’ control over roughly $40 million a year in federal Title I funding for poor students. That translates, for example, into an estimated $1.8 million in the Tacoma Public Schools alone. The money will still arrive, but districts may have to use it to buy private tutoring for students or bus rides to other districts.

Let’s be very clear on what happened in the Legislature. Union officials and their domesticated lawmakers blame all of this on the unreasonable standards of No Child Left Behind, on Congress and on the Obama administration. That’s like blaming the thunderstorm for drenching you after you ignored the forecast and refused to get out of the rain.

Yes, NCLB is ridiculously punitive, as evidenced by those failure letters and the diversion of the Title I money. Yes, Congress should have been amended it years ago.

But Congress has not amended it, and no one in this state has the power to make Congress amend it. That’s reality. That’s the thunderstorm. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been warning Washington lawmakers about it for years.

Duncan and President Obama pushed the constitutional envelope a few years ago when they tried to help states evade the sanctions of No Child Left Behind. They did so by offering temporary, conditional waivers from the rigid demands of NCLB. To get permanent waivers, states had to meet simple and reasonable requirements that arguably met the intent of the law.

One requirement was the use of statewide test data in teacher evaluations. Simple, reasonable. A lot of school districts in this state were doing it already.

Duncan didn’t dictate how much weight the statewide data had to be given. A district could make it, say, a mere 4 percent of the evaluation. The idea was to make oranges-to-oranges cross-district comparisons part of the conversation when students’ progress was discussed.

Most lawmakers were agreeable. The provision seemed headed for easy approval in the Legislature. There seemed little doubt that Washington would retain its waiver.

Then, for reasons clear only to themselves, leaders of the Washington Education Association turned fanatic over the issue. In mid-session, the WEA suddenly told lawmakers that a vote against the requirement — on which the waiver depended — was a political loyalty test.

Previous supporters then showed their true colors and abandoned the legislation — fully aware that they were jeopardizing funding for low-income students and the reputation of schools. It was the most craven display of political subservience this state has seen in years.

Washington thus became the first state to lose its waiver. It was impossible to persuade Duncan that the evaluation requirement was unreasonable when the vast majority of states had no problem with it.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn gamely tried to hang on to the conditional waiver and fend off the NCLB sanctions. No luck; the federal money is getting locked up and the letters are coming.

Parents shouldn’t blame their schools for the letters. They should blame lawmakers who dared not fail a patently foolish union litmus test, even at the expense of the state’s schoolchildren.