Olympia aims its collective forehead at a brick wall

If accepting the reality that Washington’s teacher evaluations law needs to be tweaked is the smart thing to do, as I argued last month, then I don’t know what to call what transpired in the state Senate on Tuesday. Hypocrisy, useless symbolism and blatant special interest wheeling-and-dealing were all in the mix as senators voted down the fix that would have maintained the state’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

That waiver matters. Without it, local schools will lose flexibility in how they spend federal grants that help kids from low-income areas. Additionally, almost every school in the state will be required to send parents notices that their child’s school is “failing.”

The News Tribune editorial board and columnist Peter Callaghan both wrote on the topic in yesterday’s edition (their relentless focus on education issues is the reason they were named SGW “Bright Lights”). This is Callaghan’s summation of the issue:

It’s a pretty good evaluation system with one flaw, at least according to the federal Department of Education. The state currently lets local districts pick from a variety of tests in their evaluation systems — state, districtwide, school-based or even classroom-specific. The feds allow the other assessments to be included but require that the statewide test be used by all districts. To keep the waiver, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn has asked the Legislature to make that fix.

The fix is so easy and the money goes to help the students who most need it. So why did it fail on a 19-28 vote?

1)     Hypocrisy, thy name is Rosemary
Senate Democrats’ education lead, Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, is a longtime ally of the state teachers union, the Washington Education Association. She introduced legislation just before session to make the identical fix as Tuesday’s failed bill, saying at the time that it was “important that we meet these federal guidelines.”

But McAuliffe flipped on the issue. Despite the fact that she prime-sponsored the same legislation just 51 days earlier (and despite the fact that Sen. Steve Litzow introduced a “clean” bill with no other issues attached, as Democrats demanded), she led all but one of her caucus members in voting no. The blog post she wrote on December 30 touting her bill was quietly removed from the Senate Democrats’ website yesterday.

2)     Democrats do the WEA’s bidding
The state teachers union, a heavy benefactor to Democratic legislators and the state Democratic Party, has made it very clear what it thinks of using statewide tests in teacher evaluations. Democrats tread carefully so as not to anger the group that gives them so much organizational and financial support. With a situation like this one, where the Senate Democrats go from having their education lead sponsor this legislation to, 51 days later, all but one of them voting against it, you can see the WEA flexing its muscles. It’s just the kids in the struggling schools who suffer.

3)     Some Republicans want to make a point about federal intervention in education
Seven Senate Republicans joined with the Democrats in voting against the fix. A dozen years after its signing, the No Child Left Behind Act remains controversial, with some opposed to federal involvement in the states’ education systems. I just wish those Republicans had chosen another way to register their protest. The funds we risk losing, targeted to help kids in difficult situations, are not worth risking for so little to be gained.

As the TNT’s editorial put it, “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.” Republicans should embrace that.

This issue likely isn’t going anywhere. Gov. Inslee announced yesterday that he will meet with President Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, on Monday to ask if the state really, truly, actually has to fix the evaluation law to keep the waiver. Mr. Duncan is a strong education reform advocate. He is unlikely to pull a McAuliffe and flip on the issue. “The Education Department hasn’t been caving on similar appeals from other accountability-averse states,” the TNT’s ed board dryly noted.

Despite the political games in the capitol this week, nothing has changed. It’s still time for Olympia to accept reality and make the fix that our students need.

— Rob McKenna


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.

Read more: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2014/02/20/3057482/are-weak-teaching-evaluations.html

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.