Probst bill targeting school dropout rates clears House

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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photoRep. Tim Probst D-Vancouver

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A bill introduced by Rep. Tim Probst calling for cash awards to Washington high schools that reduce their dropout rates has passed the state House of Representatives.

Whether the cash-strapped Legislature will ultimately approve the $4.8 million needed annually to underwrite the awards remains to be seen.

Second Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1599, nicknamed PASS (for Pay for Actual Student Success), cleared the House Wednesday on a 54-42 vote. The final version is carefully worded to make it clear that the awards will be forthcoming only “if funds are appropriated.”

The revised bill passed both the House Education and Ways and Means committees on divided votes, with 10 opponents in Ways and Means recommending a “do not pass.”

A wake-up call

According to the Office of Financial Management, as many as 340 high schools around the state might qualify for awards ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 depending on their success in reducing dropout rates. Individual schools would pocket 90 percent of the cash bonuses, with 10 percent going to their school districts.

The dropout numbers are a wake-up call. Just 73.5 percent of Washington students in the class of 2009 graduated with high school diplomas within four years of entering high school. A 2007 study says taxpayers save an estimated $10,500 in public expense yearly for each student who is prevented from dropping out of high school.

Probst, D-Vancouver, said his bill is based on a successful program in the state’s community colleges that “paid for results rather than seat time.” He said the program increased student retention by 10 percent each year in the first two years of its existence.

“When I saw that successful model, I said, ‘Let’s apply that to our high schools and increase our completion rate,’” he said.

Probst defended the timing of the bill, saying it’s important to get innovative ideas on the table, especially during a budget crisis.

“This is the right way to do it,” he said Thursday. “The policy is subject to appropriations, so that as we consider all of the big budget decisions, we are able to include this policy and consider how it lines up with our other priorities.”

The measure still must clear the Senate and make it into the final House-Senate budget bill.

Some opposition

The Washington Education Association, representing most Washington K-12 public school teachers, is opposed to the measure, though the bill has won support from school advocacy groups like the League of Education Voters.

“At a time when we’re cutting billions out of K-12 education, we just can’t afford to spend money on a new program, no matter how well-intentioned it is,” said WEA spokesman Rich Wood. “We think the priority should be on protecting students from overcrowded classrooms, especially in the youngest grades. That should be a priority, because we know that’s what will make a difference to students, both then and in their high school careers.”

Evergreen Schools Superintendent John Deeder says he likes the idea of paying schools for performance.

“The school gets more money, so there is some incentive to keeping our kids in school,” he said. “Any money we got would be plowed back into additional support programs to help kids who are struggling academically. I’m very in favor of the concept, but I’m also concerned about how we fund it.”

On the other hand, Deeder said, “We also can’t afford to let 25 to 30 percent of our kids drop out of high school and think they are going to be able to be competitive and help us grow our economy in the future.”

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction would administer the program and develop a system for measuring success in dropout prevention. Participating high schools would use proven dropout prevention and intervention strategies.

Probst said it’s time to try new approaches to improving education.

“There are two schools of thought playing out in this budget debate,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Keep doing everything the same but do less of it.’ I think that’s the wrong approach. When you’re in an economic crisis, that is the critical time to find new ways of doing business and making meaningful reform.”

In fact, he said, because the reform he’s calling for involves paying for performance in the public schools, it “might never have been considered in better times.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.