SEATTLE — Education will be a focus when the Washington Legislature convenes in January, but money won't be the only issue on the table.
Lawmakers must also bring the state's teacher evaluation system up to federal standards, or risk losing a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction believes the problem centers on one three-letter word in state law.
The new teacher evaluation law requires student growth data — test scores or other measures of student achievement over time — to be part of teacher evaluations, but it gives school districts some flexibility about where they choose to get that data.
The Washington law says statewide test scores can be a factor in teacher evaluations. The federal government wants the word "can" to be changed to "must" or Washington will not meet its requirements for a waiver from the federal education law, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn.
Washington is one of a handful of states, including Oregon, Arizona and Kansas, in "high risk" of losing the waivers that have been granted to dozens of states.
The waivers give states more flexibility to figure out how to boost education without meeting the 2014 deadlines under No Child Left Behind, which says every child in the nation would be reading and doing math at grade level by next year.
The exact wording of the Washington law was the result of negotiations between statewide education officials, lawmakers and the state teachers union, the Washington Education Association.
State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Poulsbo, does not agree that changing one word in state law will resolve the problem.
"I support being in compliance with the federal government's recommendations," she said.
Rolfes said it's important to make the language workable for schools, many of which are already using the new teacher and principal evaluation system and are already using student growth data as an element in evaluating educators.
Lawmakers will need to be careful not to add new testing burdens on children, teachers or school districts, she said.
"The less tinkering we can do while being compliant with federal rules the better off we will be," Rolfes said.
Dorn has made this one of two major requests for the Legislature next year. The other request is for another $544 million for basic education to meet the requirements of the Supreme Court's McCleary decision.
"When the Legislature was debating this back in 2010, I said the language didn't go far enough," Dorn said in a statement. He notes, however, that test scores should not be the only measure to evaluate teachers. "But they must be one of the tools we use in our new accountability system."
At a recent meeting of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, Deputy Superintendent Alan Burke said Washington districts are ahead of schedule in implementing the new law and so far all districts that have adopted a new teacher evaluation system have included student growth on statewide tests as a factor.
Burke said he has been told by federal education officials that Washington is highly unlikely to get a waiver for the 2014-15 school year if they do not make the change the evaluation law again.
If Washington loses its waivers, nearly every school in the state will have to send a letter home to parents saying they are failing to meet the requirements of federal education law.
A spokesman from the state's largest teacher's union said he thought the Legislature had other important issues to focus on next year.
Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said lawmakers should let school districts continue the good work they're already doing to strengthen teacher and principal evaluations, and focus instead on dollars for education.
"Teachers are administrators are working hard and in good faith, and changing the law for the third time in four years will hinder their efforts," he said.
The WEA would like to see the Legislature focus on fully paying for K-12 public education as the Supreme Court has ordered them to and restore educator cost-of-living pay raises.
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, said she would be proposing a bill to fix standards to meet the demands of the U.S. Department of Education, but she wants to keep it as narrowly focused as possible.