In Our View: Gambling on Education

State Senate's refusal to back teacher evaluations feds sought could backfire

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The state Senate last week placed a somewhat risky $44 million bet in a game of educational roulette. Lawmakers rejected a bill that would have complied with federal wishes regarding the No Child Left Behind Act, leaving Gov. Jay Inslee to explain the action to officials in Washington, D.C.

At stake is federal funding that goes to boost learning among disadvantaged students. The money is delivered to the state and doled out to individual districts to support tutors, preschool and other programs intended to improve test results among such students. At issue is how Washington evaluates teachers and how much of a role standardized tests play in those evaluations. Washington's system for grading teachers, adopted in 2010, says such tests "can" play a role in the evaluations; the feds say the tests "must" figure in the evaluations.

The consternation is such that the state Senate rejected — by a 28-19 vote — Senate Bill 5246, which would have altered the language in Washington's evaluation system and brought it in line with federal thinking. A total of 21 Senate Democrats joined with seven conservative Republicans in defeating the bill. Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, voted in favor; Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, voted against, demonstrating how the proposal defied conventional political boundaries.

Standardized tests as a manner of evaluating teachers long has been a hot political stovetop. Teachers in Seattle Public Schools last spring began a boycott of the Measures of Academy Progress test, leading weak-willed Superintendent Jose Banda to cave in and eliminate the test as a graduation requirement. Recently, parent Robert Cruickshank wrote in a guest opinion for The Seattle Times, "Linking teacher evaluations to test scores undermines quality education in our schools and demoralizes our teachers."

Those assertions echo oft-repeated positions from teachers unions, and their veracity present a debate for another time. For now, however, the state must come up with a plan to mollify the federal government. "Either we have to come to an agreement with the Department of Education or continue pressing on with the Legislature," Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said. In other words, Inslee's office really hopes federal officials change their minds.

In part because it passed new evaluation methods four years ago, Washington has been operating under a waiver from the No Child Left Behind mandate. But now the feds have deemed that the state — along with Oregon, Arizona and Kansas — are in "high risk" of losing those waivers, which could be interpreted as, "Our patience is wearing thin." If Washington doesn't comply, the state could lose some federal funding and could forfeit much flexibility in how those federal dollars are spent. Districts also would have to notify parents that their schools are not making sufficient progress toward compliance with No Child Left Behind, and parents would have the option of sending students to any school within that district — with schools picking up the transportation costs.

That would be a high price to pay in a battle that is unnecessary. Most states are complying with the requirements and are moving forward, while Washington's senators have chosen to put the governor in a difficult position.

Inslee's diplomacy skills are strong. Here's hoping he can assuage officials from the U.S. Department of Education.