Washington Senate passes education reform

They would address poor reading skills, empower principals

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OLYMPIA — The Washington state Senate on Wednesday approved a series of K-12 education reform bills designed to crack down on poor reading in young students, empower principals and spotlight schools that are not hitting targets.

The measures passed by the chamber are in large part the fruit of a Republican takeover, together with two Democrats, of the state Senate this year.

"We're challenging the status quo," said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup. "We're looking to in some cases do what I might call disruptive change."

Democrats were supportive of some of the measures and aspects of others but said they wanted to give reforms enacted in recent years a chance to work before making more changes. They also argued that school funding should be addressed before additional reforms are passed.

"We do need to identify low-performing schools and we do need to help them improve," said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell. "But we need to make sure the funding is there."

Among the bills passed is one that would require third-graders with inadequate reading skills to repeat a grade, attend summer school or otherwise improve their reading before enrolling in fourth grade. The measure would also authorize K-3 teacher training to help improve students' reading.

A Democratic amendment to nullify the measure if funding is not provided for the teacher training was voted down. The bill itself passed by a 35-13 vote, with 12 Democrats joining a united Republican caucus in favor.

Another bill would give veto power to principals over teachers assigned to their schools. Under that bill, teachers without a school assignment could be deployed as substitutes or used in non-teaching roles and could eventually be fired. It passed by a 27-22 vote, with four Democrats joining all 23 Republicans voting in favor.

Bill supporters said it gives principals the ability to shape their staffs to the needs of students and to weed out problem teachers.

Opponents argued that the state's teacher evaluation process, approved by the Legislature last year, should be allowed to run its course.

"There are principals who shouldn't be principals, and now we're giving them the power to really wreck a school," said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County.

A third bill would set up an A through F grade scale for K-12 schools. The grading system would be set up as a pilot program in a handful of schools starting in the fall of 2013. After an evaluation, it would be implemented statewide the following year.

It passed by a vote of 26-23, with four Democrats joining all but one of the 23 Republicans in voting in favor.

Bill supporters said that it should be made plain when a school is failing.