A race our state can’t sit out

Learning gains in Washington’s public schools have hit a worrisome plateau, judging from test results released Friday.

Scores from tests administered to Washington students this spring were mostly flat, and as a result, hundreds more schools have been placed on a federal watch list that could lead to severe consequences. The new results will already force several more schools in Snohomish County to bus students to better-performing schools if their family requests a transfer.

Serious change is needed. Congress needs to retool the accountability piece of the federal No Child Left Behind act, providing support to schools that are close to meeting rigorous standards rather than punishment that makes success even harder.

In our state, a bold effort should be made to land a share of more than $5 billion in stimulus money that federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan will distribute to states in the form of Race to the Top grants. The Obama administration is using the money as an incentive to adopt the kinds of reforms it believes will increase student achievement, and Washington currently falls short in some key policy areas.

A report issued Monday by the respected League of Education Voters Foundation, “Using Stimulus to Drive Change: Opportunities for Washington State,” details changes it believes could put our state in the running for hundreds of millions of dollars, money that could boost innovation and put student achievement back on an upward curve.

This year, the Legislature approved a sweeping education-reform bill that redefined basic education to include early learning for at-risk children, all-day kindergarten, stronger graduation requirements, a longer school day and other reforms, to be fully implemented by 2018. The reforms are on target, and in line with Race to the Top goals, but there’s no money to pay for them yet. Race to the Top dollars would help.

To qualify for them, the LEV Foundation says Washington needs to adopt a more rigorous process for evaluating teacher performance. And since Washington doesn’t allow charter schools, a Race to the Top preference but a concept state voters have rejected three times, the Foundation says the state must demonstrate how current public-private partnerships fill a similar role. It also recommends allowing the state to step in and make changes in chronically underperforming schools.

With state budget woes likely to continue for at least a few more years, these federal funds may represent the best chance for giving student achievement the boost it needs. Education leaders throughout the state, including lawmakers and teachers, must work together to implement the changes needed to ensure this opportunity isn’t missed.

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