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July 28, 2021

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Zarelli bill targets teacher evaluation, pay

Several teachers, advocates give measure chilly reaction at initial hearing

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See Senate Bill 5914

See public policy research on teacher compensation

A thoughtful approach to school and budget reform, or a scatter-gun blast at the teachers’ union?

Response to new education legislation co-sponsored by state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, lies, unsurprisingly, in the eye of the beholder.

Budget-hawk Zarelli teamed with Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, a member of the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Committee, to introduce Senate Bill 5914 this week in Olympia.

Unveiled late in the 105-day session but also a potential piece of a 2011-13 state budget deal, the forward-looking measure would have far-reaching impact:

• Presuming a four-tiered teacher evaluation system now being piloted in select Washington school districts, the bill would ban “last hired, first laid-off” seniority protections in case of budget-triggered reductions, written into most current bargained teacher contracts.

Instead, certificated classroom teachers with the lowest evaluations would be first on the chopping block (the rule would apply to new union contracts when current ones expire).

• Principals at the lowest-ranked schools, per Washington’s accountability index, could block placement of a classroom teacher, in order to prevent dumping of poor-performing instructors in such schools.

• Principals could act more quickly to initiate termination of underperforming teachers (based on at least three years of results), with expedited school board review of that decision and any teacher appeal.

• The yearly salary bonus paid to teachers who earn national board certification — considered a rigorous professional training — would end after two years if that teacher’s performance does not rank in the top evaluation tier. Annual inflationary adjustment to the $5,000 base bonus also would be eliminated.

• Starting in the 2013-14 school year (and phased out gradually through 2018-19), teachers would no longer receive a salary bonus for post-bachelor’s degree credits beyond 45 credits (the maximum is now 90 credits), save for those in mathematics, science or special education study fields. Also, teacher bonuses earned for each of the first 16 years of service would instead be capped after eight years.

Dubbed the “Excellent Teachers for Every Student Act,” SB 5914 would “empower” school principals and teachers to meet pressing challenges and provide “rational” allocation of state-paid teacher salary and bonuses, its authors declare.

On Wednesday, Zarelli said the bill suggests the meatiest change in teacher evaluation and pay models proposed in Olympia in years.

It’s been “a slow progression” on the budget side to implement steady reforms, he said. “This changes the paradigm on how we pay for teachers, without reducing the amount of money we pay them.”

Immediate reduction in board-certification bonuses and other changes would net $45 million savings in the 2011-13 budget period, Zarelli said. Are those reforms folded into a Senate budget plan now expected next week, on which Zarelli has been the lead GOP negotiator?

“We’ll see,” he said.

To sell their overhaul, Zarelli and Tom cite research by the nonpartisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which the Legislature created in 1983.

Scouring 13 U.S. studies that measured 34 factors of student performance, the institute found little to no impact when teachers earn a graduate degree (save, perhaps, for math and science areas) — and only marginal year-to-year improvements once teachers completed about five years in the classroom.

The findings were reported in December 2007 to the legislative Joint Task on Basic Education Finance, part of a complex, ongoing struggle to define state “basic education” responsibility and funding.

Steve Aos, institute director, said the report is thorough and relies on credible research. There’s scant evidence to confirm higher student outcomes when teachers rack up dozens more post-graduate credits, he said.

“You have to conclude it’s not likely. Many of the best researchers around the country have found the same thing,” Aos said. Teachers’ learning curve is demonstrably sharp at first, then levels off, he said.

Meanwhile, the state spends more than $900 million per year on higher pay for teachers based on those two standards, Tom and Zarelli note in the bill language. Their measure would plow savings from the bonus reforms into teacher pay allocations, cutting total state costs.

Blow to profession?

Several teachers and their advocates gave the measure a chilly reception at its initial hearing Wednesday before the Ways and Means Committee.

After legislators have culled school spending by some $2 billion the past couple years, with nearly another $2 billion in cuts looming, SB 5914 is a further assault on schools and the teaching profession, said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association.

Teachers testified “why it would hurt, instead of helping,” Wood said. “In every other profession, we value and reward and expect (continuing) education. It shows a lack of understanding about teachers and teaching, and what actually happens in the classroom. It also says we don’t value experience,” he said.

The measure amounts to another salary cut for teachers who’ve made pay concessions, Wood said.

“How does this attract or retain quality teaching?” he said.

Wood also said the bill “tramples over” the ability of local unions and school boards to negotiate over teacher layoffs and oversight by imposing a one-size-fits-all state model.

Split opinions

Ann Giles, elected head of Vancouver Public Schools’ teacher’s union, said she is “a little astounded and a little offended” by the eight-year cap on longevity pay.

Legislators “are reading bad research on this,” Giles said. “Teaching children to read is incredibly difficult, and you can’t teach every kid to read with the same method. But we can’t do that if we don’t continue to learn how to teach kids.

“I believe that teachers continually learn. We’re constantly doing professional development, constantly getting better at what we do,” she said.

The measure would revive seniority and pay reforms previously rejected, she said. “It sounds like another way to use financial crisis to find a way to do ed reform that doesn’t really do anything.”

Zarelli said he’s received teacher emails that support his approach, meanwhile.

“They’re delighted” with the idea of incentives, rather than the status quo, he said. “If tradition holds, the ones against it are the unions. We’ve been fighting this forever,” he said. It’s time teachers are held to standards “just like any professional” to determine job security and compensation, he said.

“You’ve got to accept that there’s some who are exceptional, others who are average, and others who probably ought to not be in the profession.”

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.

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