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Lawmakers sit out the Race to the Top

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 13, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
February 12, 2010 6:28 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

We now know the Legislature plan’s for competing for Race to the Top education dollars: Too little, too late.

The Senate on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that supposedly positions Washington to win its share of Race to the Top funding – money the Obama administration is offering states at the cutting edge of education reform.

Washington isn’t at the cutting edge. It isn’t even at the dull edge. It’s at the back of the handle of a dull blade.

Gov. Chris Gregoire had to withdraw the state from the first round of the federal competition because Washington was simply a non-contender. Many of the key reforms U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was looking for – such as high-quality charter schools – were nowhere to be found within our borders. There went Washington’s shot at $200 million-plus that would have been a godsend during a brutal budget crisis.

The 2010 Legislature, in theory, has decided to put the state back in the running for round two. Senate Bill 6696 would in fact take several serious steps toward better-performing schools.

The state would, for the first time, be permitted to step into failing local school districts and force them to step up their game. There’d be tighter evaluations of principals and teachers. Qualified professionals in other fields would be allowed to bring their skills to the classroom more easily with streamlined teacher-certification.

One problem: The bill still wouldn’t make Washington a contender for the desperately needed federal dollars. The Obama administration really does want those charter schools. It wants the effectiveness of educators objectively measured by connecting student test scores to teachers. It wants genuine merit pay for outstanding teachers. It wants states to weed out incompetent teachers with something more than glacial speed.

This bill isn’t likely to impress Duncan & Company. Gregoire and the Senate Democrats who crafted its modest reforms are pretending it’s a grand achievement, but independent experts ­– including Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn – beg to differ.

The elephant in the room is the Washington Education Association. Democrats have given the teachers union virtual veto power over any provision it doesn’t like – and the WEA really doesn’t like linking test data to teachers, charter schools and some other practices the Obama administration wants to reward. The WEA has been constructive in supporting the baby steps of SB 6696, but it still stands squarely athwart any effort to fundamentally overhaul public education in Washington.

Still, the WEA isn’t the real problem. It is doing what unions do: protecting its members. The problem is the scarcity of politically courageous lawmakers willing to pursue reform in defiance of the WEA and other powerful constituencies.

Let’s at least stop pretending that the Legislature wants the kind of change the administration is demanding. The Senate bill is proof that lawmakers are not racing to the top. They’re being dragged, grudgingly, to the bottom of the hill.

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