In eyes of the law, nearly all Snohomish County schools ‘failing’

OLYMPIA – Students in Washington public schools are doing as well as they ever have on mandated reading and writing tests.

And the class of 2014 attained one of the highest graduation rates on record in the state.

But when viewed under the microscope of the federal No Child Left Behind law, nine out of 10 elementary and secondary schools in the state are failing — including nearly every one in Snohomish County.

That’s the dichotomy depicted Wednesday in reams of data distributed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn.

It was the federal government’s perception of Washington schools that got Dorn fired up and promising to regain a waiver to the law so the labels can be removed.

“By losing our waiver we’ve had to do some things that I think are ridiculous, stupid, ineffective, waste resources and accomplish zero,” Dorn said. “It’s extremely frustrating for me to have to deal with this.”

Among the “stupid” things are letters principals had to send parents informing them of the situation. In some cases, parents were told they can transfer their child to a nonfailing school or get them special tutoring services when classes begin Sept. 3.

Those missives took time to write and cost money to send, Dorn said. The information they contained is bound to confuse parents and even breed mistrust in the district and government, he said.

The letters are a requirement of the 2001 federal law that directed states to set standards for student achievement in math, reading and English language at each grade level.

Under the law, 100 percent of students must meet those state-drafted standards by 2014 and if just one student fails to do so, the school is deemed failing and letters must be sent.

Overall, 1,916 schools, or 88.1 percent, did not meet the standard and needed to send out letters. Only 260 schools met the standards based on student performance last school year. Among them were Cedar Wood Elementary in Everett, Index Elementary School, Heritage High School in Tulalip and Lincoln Academy in Stanwood.

Gov. Jay Inslee said the federal law paints an inaccurate picture of Washington public schools.

“We know that 88 percent of our schools aren’t failing but federal law gives superintendents no choice but to send out these letters,” Inslee spokesman David Postmen wrote in an email. “As school starts in Washington, the governor knows that students and educators will be working hard for constant improvement and believe, as he does, that all students can succeed.

Dorn wants to regain the waiver. He’ll ask lawmakers to pass a bill in 2015, one they rejected in the 2014 session, to require student test scores to be used in teacher performance evaluations.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said if such a bill became a law, the waiver would be restored.

But the statewide teachers union, the Washington Education Association, lobbied hard against it. In the end, a coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in the Senate defeated the proposed legislation.

“We had what I called the most reasonable bill in the nation,” Dorn said. “It’ll be the exact same bill. We worked our tails off last year. I take my hat off to the WEA. They did a better job than we did.

“Maybe this time we can get past the rhetoric and propaganda and do what’s right for kids,” he said.

Rich Wood, WEA spokesman, said the waiver bill should not be reintroduced.

“We need the Legislature to focus on their paramount duty to fully fund our public schools,” he said. “That should be the focus of the 2015 Legislature.”

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, ranking minority member of the Senate education committee, opposed the waiver bill. She said what happens in 2015 depends on how parents react to the letters about their child’s failing school.

“We know it’s a failed policy,” she said of the federal law. “If parents and schools believe it is important we follow federal policy, we will certainly listen.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos

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