Lawmakers seek to give state schools chief more power

OLYMPIA — The new state public schools chief is seeking greater authority to direct education policy in Washington, and some lawmakers are supportive.

A Republican-led effort to transfer responsibilities away from the state Board of Education into the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is fomenting a quiet tug-of-war between the two entities.

The House Education Committee last week approved a bill reducing or eliminating the board’s role in such things as developing high school graduation requirements and holding schools accountable for the academic progress of their students.

Under House Bill 1886, the board no longer would be allowed to grant waivers on basic education-related programs, such as the length of the school year, or to monitor a district’s compliance with basic education laws. This panel would, however, retain its involvement in authorizing charter schools.

Chris Reykdal, the new Superintendent of Public Instruction, said that if he is to be held accountable by the public for the achievement of students and performance of schools, he needs to have the final say on many of the decisions now entrusted to the Board of Education.

“This has been on the table for a couple of years,” said Reykdal, a Democrat who served in the House before winning statewide office. “We’re trying to clarify our role.”

Ben Rarick, executive director of the state Board of Education, said the proposed legislation is much more than a clarification.

“It’s a pretty sweeping change,” he said. “Our message is that if they feel like it is time to take a look at the governance issue at-large they should do that. This bill doesn’t do that. This is a narrowly tailored bill that goes against us.”

The Board of Education, which has been around more than a century, has 16 members. Five are elected from different regions of the state by school board directors and seven are appointed by the governor. There are two student representatives, one person from private schools and the state superintendent.

This board is established in state law while Reykdal’s office is rooted in Washington’s constitution. Through the years, there have been conversations about the balance of responsibilities. And there have been dust-ups by those trying to reset the balance.

House Bill 1886 was introduced by Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee. Rep. Sharon Tomiko-Santos,D-Seattle, the committee’s powerful chairwoman, is the co-sponsor.

At a public hearing Feb. 13, five Board of Education members testified against the bill. They said it distracts from what should be the focus of everyone in education this year — complying with the state Supreme Court’s mandate to fully fund public schools. Once that’s done, conversations can begin on potentially realigning responsibilities, they said.

Deb Merle, Inslee’s education policy adviser, said if the relationship is to be re-examined, it needs to involve a broader conversation, “not something top down from Olympia, from OSPI.”

The committee approved the bill 11-7 on Feb. 16. Seven Republicans and four Democrats supported the bill while six Democrats and one Republican did not.

Harris said an elected official should be ultimately responsible for the public education system. Years ago lawmakers moved responsibilities to the Board of Education.

“We gave this authority away and we can take it back,” he said.

Santos said this is an important conversation to have and the bill “seems to be a more thoughtful approach rather than simply abolishing it.”

Opponents expressed concern the bill is moving too quickly and requires more deliberation.

Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, said he’s not against a re-balancing but the bill is too one-sided.

“You don’t solve the dilemma by eviscerating the agency,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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