In Our View: Behind in the ‘Race’

State hopes to grab second-round education funds, but catch-up strategy lacks punch

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Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Senate are trying hard to qualify for the second round of federal education funding in the $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” program. The governor has proposed significant reform measures in response to federal demands, and the Senate on Feb. 11 passed a bill that likely will enhance the state’s eligibility. But two factors continue to conspire against Washingtonians as our elected officials — in these most devastating economic times — try desperately to munch one of the federal-funding carrots dangling before us.

First, sitting on the starting blocks is not a good strategy when the starter’s gun sounds. Last year, Washington state officials didn’t even apply for the first round of “Race to the Top” funding because it was so obvious we didn’t have a chance at qualifying. This state’s education system is so entrenched in mediocrity and so change-resistant that our only hope is for second-round Race funding this summer.

Second, although significant reform measures have been proposed, our catch-up strategy lacks many of the necessary ingredients. Granted, Gregoire wants to strengthen the State Board of Education’s oversight of school accountability plans, create new ways to become a teacher, pay teachers more for innovation and shrink achievement gaps. Also in the state’s Race application proposal, we find more specific and meaningful teacher evaluations, enhanced public-private partnerships and more tools and criteria for principals and superintendents to fire bad teachers. Good ideas, all.

The governor also has shown remarkable coalition-building skills this year. The Washington Education Association, the teachers union that habitually fights innovative reform, has endorsed Gregoire’s Race plan this year. Peter Callaghan, columnist for The News Tribune in Tacoma, wrote in a column that appeared in the Jan. 24 Columbian: “Significantly, (Washington Education Association) President Mary Lindquist was standing behind Gregoire (at a press conference announcing the application plan). As the 2009 legislative session ended, Lindquist lashed out at the supporters of (last year’s plan) including Democrats and even the PTA.”

Bringing the teachers’ union into the tent might look like a good move, but such inclusiveness might backfire. The WEA steadfastly opposes two criteria that the U.S. Department of Education has repeatedly said are crucial in doling out Race money: merit pay for teachers and charter schools. Both concepts seem to be impossible nuts to crack in this corner of the country. Charter schools (we’re one of just 11 states that have no charter schools) have been opposed not only by the union but by voters, who in 2004 repealed a charter school law.

One might think that anyone supportive of teachers would like the idea of rewards for high-performing teachers. Not in this state, where, as we’ve pointed out in previous editorials, a $13.2 million grant for expanding Advanced Placement classes in high schools statewide was abandoned in 2008 because of outcries from the WEA.

This year’s Race application might elicit a few crumbs from inside the Beltway, if the bill that the Senate passed is approved by the House. But we wouldn’t count on any of those bucks. When it comes to innovative education reform, especially in response to federal carrot danglers, Washington state might just as well be on the other side of the moon.