House fails to pass bill on school accountability

Associated Press

OLYMPIA — House Republicans balked Thursday at a compromise version of a school accountability bill that did not include sweeping new powers for the Superintendent of Public Instruction to take over struggling schools.

The two chambers passed competing accountability bills during the regular session. Reconciling the two had been a priority of the Legislature’s special session, but the meltdown just before Thursday’s adjournment likely means the proposal is dead for the year, lawmakers said.

During the regular session, the bill approved by the House gave the state strong powers to assist local schools in trouble and then take over schools that didn’t respond. The Democratically controlled Senate’s version was milder, giving local districts more time to fix their own problems.

In an unusual twist, the compromise measure the Senate passed Thursday was less aggressive than either version, dropping nearly all the intervention provisions. The measure concentrated on "focused assistance" — a process in which the state identifies struggling schools and then gives them intensive help — including money — as they try to meet a specific improvement plan.

"This is about children and the way they learn and how we can help them learn," said Senate Education Committee chairwoman Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell. "Before we know what these steps for intervention are and what works for students, we should not take those steps."

The bill passed 40-5 with little opposing debate and moved to the House, where Republicans refused to even allow a vote because the bill didn’t do enough to enhance the state’s power to take over struggling schools.

Such powers, which could have included taking over local school boards’ powers to fire or transfer principals and teachers, drew fire from local districts and the Washington Education Association, the state’s large and powerful teachers union.

"We’ve got 57,000 kids out there in failing schools," said Glenn Anderson, R-Issaquah, co-vice chairman of the House Education Committee. "It’s not accountability unless you pin the tail on the donkey."

The meltdown prompted an angry McAuliffe to accuse House Education Committee co-chairwoman Gigi Talcott, R-Lakewood, of bargaining in bad faith.

Talcott said she supported the focused assistance provision in the bill, but her Republican colleagues were unwilling to retreat from stronger accountability provisions.

Gov. Gary Locke called it a disappointing retreat from the bills passed earlier in the session. The focused assistance, Locke said, could have been addressed in the state’s budget.

McAuliffe and Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, R-Redmond, said opposition grew in recent weeks to the notion of the state taking over local schools.

The original bill, especially the House version, also drew opposition from the Washington Education Association. The union wanted more voice in personnel changes, which could well include firing or transferring problem teachers.

"We’ve been very upfront with the legislators," said Rich Wood, a union spokesman. "Some folks, from our perspective, have been advocating too strongly for the punishment aspect."

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