Power tussle divides state school agencies, lawmakers

OLYMPIA — As two of the state’s venerable forces in public education engage in a quiet tussle for power, state lawmakers continue to wrestle with their role as referees.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal is trying to gain control of decisions on student achievement and performance that the state Board of Education is now responsible for making.

His allies in the state House, where Reykdal served as a representative until last year, are pushing legislation to inventory the roles and responsibilities of his office, which is rooted in Washington’s Constitution; and those of the education board, which is established in state law. Their bill calls for a task force to write a report by November.

But members of the board and its executive director, Ben Rarick, are pushing back. While they’re willing to look for areas of overlap and conflict, they’ve said the degree of review envisioned by House members isn’t really necessary.

A week ago, state senators, apparently uninterested in getting too involved, passed a bill effectively telling Reykdal and Rarick to sort it out themselves.

“I would like to see them do it on their own,” said Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, the chairman of the Senate education committee. “If they come back in November without information, then at that point we could set up a legislative task force.”

Reykdal and Rarick said conversations are going on. They don’t agree on the value of further legislative involvement.

“We’re building a relationship. I’m still pushing for a clarification of the roles,” Reykdal said. “I want something that forces us to do the work and to report to the Legislature so we can make some changes. I actually think some laws need to change at the end of the day.”

Rarick said the message he and board members are sending is they want “to try to come to a common understanding and operational understanding of how we work together as two entities.”

He said they don’t want to distract lawmakers from the more pressing need to amply fund schools as required by the Supreme Court.

“This is the session for the comprehensive McCleary solution,” he said. “If it doesn’t come this session, we get concerned whether it will ever come.”

This is not the first time lawmakers have pondered resetting the balance of power between these two entities that are deeply rooted in Washington’s public education system.

Back in 1871, before Washington became a state, the Territorial Legislature created the Office of the Territorial Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Legislature chose the leader every two years.

In 1889, with the birth of the state, the Superintendent of Public Instruction was established in the Constitution as a statewide elected official charged with supervising “all matters pertaining to public schools.”

Among the chores of his office are apportioning state dollars to each school district, developing tests and collecting data on academic achievement and student behavior. His office also issues certificates for teachers and administrators, writes rules and regulations related to education, prepares courses of study and provides wide-ranging assistance to individual districts.

The state Board of Education was created by the Territorial Legislature in 1877, according to information provided to lawmakers. It’s been reconstituted and reorganized twice, in 1947 and 2005.

Of its 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.

The board is tasked with establishing high school graduation requirements, determining what score students must attain to achieve standards on statewide assessments, accrediting private schools and deciding if a school district will be allowed to authorize charter schools.

Lawmakers are at odds over House Bill 1886, which 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.

As originally written, it stripped the Board of Education of its authority in several areas including setting graduation requirements.

The final version passed by the House on a 97-0 vote March 8 didn’t go that far. Rather it created a task force to examine how Washington divvies up the duties between the superintendent’s office and the state board. It would look for areas of overlap or conflict.

This panel’s membership would include Reykdal and the chairman of the state board along with lawmakers and a representative of the governor. By Nov. 15, the task force would submit a report with its findings and recommendations to the education committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

When it arrived in the Senate, the bill got a total makeover. Senators got rid of the task force and put in language effectively telling Reykdal and Rarick to figure it out on their own and report back by mid-November. It passed 47-1 on April 4.

The changes didn’t sit well with Harris and Santos. On Thursday, the House voted to “not concur” with the revision and sent it back in hopes the Senate would retreat from its position.

“Frankly, my initial thoughts of the bill coming out of the Senate is why bother. We’ve been down that road before,” Santos said. “This is not a new issue. We want to make sure we understand who has what role. The real problem is a fairly intransigent state board that has been unwilling to have these conversations with the superintendent. They see it as a removal of its power.”

Harris said a task force lawmakers will be part of the conversation and can make sure that what gets discussed leads to action.

“It’s our authority that we delegated to the Board of Education,” he said

Gov. Jay Inslee has met multiple times with the bill’s sponsors. He has not taken a position on either version passed out of the House and Senate.

“We do believe it’s time to look at the roles and responsibilities for policy and implementation” between those agencies, said Deb Merle, Inslee’s education policy adviser. “In fact those conversations have already begun.”

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

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