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Lawmakers finally take a step toward education reform

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Feb. 18, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
February 17, 2012 5:25 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

It rarely pays to get too hopeful about education reform in this state. But the Legislature – the Senate at least – has actually taken a major step toward accountability in Washington’s public schools.

Senate Bill 5895, which cleared that chamber Tuesday, requires the use of objective student-performance measures in the evaluation of teachers. It also requires that feedback from teachers be used in the evaluation of principals.

Teachers and principals can lose their jobs if they keep flunking the new tests. This turns Washington tradition on its head. In this state, it can take a felony to separate a faculty member from his or her job. Only the bravest administrators have dared tackle the convoluted, expensive process required to fire the incompetent.

Let’s not get giddy, though. The Senate’s move to tie “student growth data” looks impressive only in terms of the state’s benighted history. SB 5895 is not radical. It would not make Washington a leader in education reform. It would merely help the state catch up to the middle of the pack.

But the 46-3 vote in the Senate is impressive. Most education reform measures are throttled in committee. Once this one reached a floor vote in open daylight, lawmakers embraced it – if only to avoid shame in some cases.

The question now is whether House leaders will let the accountability requirements reach the floor or consign them to some dark corner to die.

Much of the credit for this breakthrough belongs to Senate reform advocates, such as Bellevue Democrat Rodney Tom, who simply refused to settle for the toothless alternative favored by the K-12 establishment.

But give both Barack Obama and George W. Bush their due. Both put unprecedented pressure on states and educational systems that frequently failed to deliver even the rudiments of education to schoolchildren.

Obama has been the nation’s reformer-in-chief since he took office. His Race to the Top initiative was a stroke of genius. By handing out grants to states that were leading the pack, the program embarrassed states – like Washington – that couldn’t even lace up their running shoes.

Bush’s initiative, No Child Left Behind, also employed the shame factor: It forced schools to explicitly report the performance of minorities and the disadvantaged – in excruciating detail – rather than let them hide damning data inside averages.

One problem with NCLB was its threat to kill federal funding for schools that couldn’t meet its wildly unrealistic demands for improvement. But Obama has ingeniously leveraged that flaw. He has offered to exempt states from the sanctions – if they enact standards and accountability measures that align with the goals of Race to the Top.

Race to the Top; No Child Left Behind. Good cop; bad cop. It’s a combination the Legislature hasn’t been able to ignore.

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