In Our View: Our Children Left Behind

State, federal governments and teachers' union tussle over waiver, hurt students most

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It has been an epidemic of intransigence on all sides of the argument, but the end result will most affect those who have no say in the debate.

Washington has been stripped of a waiver that spared it from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, meaning the state is losing autonomy in how it spends about $40 million in federal money to improve student performance in public schools. Gov. Jay Inslee said he expects that the federal decision could lead to teacher layoffs and cuts in programs that support struggling students.

The intransigence? That came from the state’s powerful teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association, which fought against federal demands that standardized testing be used to help evaluate teachers and principals.

And it came from lawmakers, who caved to demands from the teachers’ union and this year declined to make a minor change in state law that says such tests “may” be used in evaluations. Altering the law to say “must” could have appeased the feds and preserved the state’s waiver.

And it came from the U.S. Department of Education, which chose to make an example out of Washington and make the state the first to lose its No Child Left Behind waiver. Never mind that Washington typically has high-performing schools. A total of 42 other states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers but, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “Washington has not been able to keep all of its commitments.”

By standing their ground, teachers, legislators, and federal authorities got what they wanted, we guess. And that means the losers in this needless fight are students and their parents.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, nearly every student in Washington is expected to be reading — and doing math — at their expected grade level by the end of this school year, and that absurdly unreachable standard will have vast consequences. With the loss of the waiver, schools falling short of that mark will be required to inform parents that the school is “failing” and will relinquish local control of how the federal money is spent. As House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said: “If the goal was to help students be successful, I’m trying to figure out how the action taken by the Department of Education will lead to better student outcomes. You’re penalizing the poorest schools in the state of Washington.”

There is plenty of blame to go around, but the bulk of it must land on the Legislature. The WEA did what unions are expected to do — advocate for the wishes of its members. We disagree with teachers’ continued insurgence against the use of standardized tests, but that is an argument for a different time. No, the larger problem resides with lawmakers’ unwillingness to demonstrate leadership in this silly and unnecessary battle. Despite pressure from the teachers’ union, legislators should have acted in the best interest of the state rather than giving in to a powerful constituency.

Duncan and the federal government have left the door open for Washington to regain its No Child Left Behind waiver and regain control of how the money is spent, but Inslee has indicated that a special legislative session for that purpose is unlikely. If the votes aren’t there, such a session would be a waste of time and money.

In the meantime, Washington has painted itself into a corner. And students are the ones who are trapped.