New law has state intervene in struggling schools

OLYMPIA — One of the first Republican-sponsored education reform bills became law Tuesday and will give the state more power to intercede in schools where student performance on basic skills tests is persistently poor.

Under the legislation signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the superintendent of public instruction will provide technical assistance to schools where student scores on reading and math assessments are consistently poor for a period of years.

If the extra attention doesn’t improve student performance, the superintendent can impose a multi-year action plan on the school that prescribes such things as teaching methods and curriculum as well as how federal and state funds are spent on campus.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said it is a “solid bill” which will enable the state to partner with targeted schools and shift to a leading role down the line if needed.

The prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5329 did not attend Tuesday’s signing but issued a statement calling it “a great step toward ensuring that all children are successful.”

“This was one of the important ways we can go about making sure our public-education system is serving all children and preparing them for the demands of an increasingly competitive job market and global economy,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who is chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

What Inslee signed is a far cry from the bill introduced by Litzow. That version required Dorn’s office to take over and manage poor performing schools starting in January 2014.

Pressure from House Democrats and the education establishment led to much revised language, which focuses on letting each school try to turn itself around before the state intervenes.

“We just don’t believe takeovers are a long-term solution to enacting real improvement in student achievement,” said Ben Rarick, executive director of the state Board of Education.

The final version sailed through the Senate on a 45-3 vote and passed the House on a comfortable 68-29 margin. The law takes effect in July.

In the House, opposition came from liberal Democrats, who thought it gave the state much power to intervene in local schools, and conservative Republicans who thought it did not go far enough.

Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, voted to advance the bill out of the House Education Committee on which he serves then voted against it in the end.

He said it was being revised and improved from his perspective as it made its way through the House but did not reach the point where he could support it.

“We have overloaded schools with so many requirements, all in the name of accountability,” he said. “I am of the mindset that we need to give schools more leeway to get the job done. We have to give them the ability to teach.”

Meanwhile, Litzow and Senate Republicans are still pushing for action on a number of other education reform bills in special session.

One of those would evaluate the performance of every school using letter grades of A-F like on a report card. Student achievement is one of the measures that would be used in determining the grade.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said the law signed Tuesday lays the foundation for such a system. “I think they complement one another,” he said. “In order to have a grading system that is meaningful you have to have clearly spelled out accountability standards.”

Inslee said the door is open for dialogue.

“I don’t think that this bill obviates the wisdom of continuing to look at some better ways to evaluate our schools,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the last of the discussion in that regard.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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