Poor marks were deserved

Show us someone who was surprised by Washington’s failure to make the cut for federal Race to the Top education money, and we’ll show you a dreamer who probably still thinks the Mariners can make the playoffs.

Washington had no realistic shot at a grant of up to $250 million because it fell far short of the sensible reform goals set by the Obama administration for the national competition. The reform package passed by the Legislature this year, which was intended to make the state competitive in the Race to the Top, was seen by federal education officials for what it was: a timid half-step, while other states were taking leaps.

In an uninspiring reaction to the loss, Gov. Chris Gregoire, state Superintendent Randy Dorn and State Board of Education Chair Jeff Vincent wrote, “When we put together our application, we were committed, win or lose, to making sure we would carry out education reform our way, the Washington way.”

If “the Washington way” means overcompromising real reform into mush, it succeeded. Yes, the pertinent legislation (SB 6696) included some laudable steps, like a two-year pilot project of new teacher and principal evaluation systems that will use measurements of student growth as part of the criteria. (The Snohomish School District is one of the pilot sites.)

But more innovative solutions that are being embraced elsewhere, such as charter schools and performance pay for teaching excellence, remain politically out of bounds in Washington.

Voters have rejected charter schools three times, due in no small part to the loud opposition by the state’s largest teachers’ union. The union also disapproves of Race to the Top’s competitive nature, arguing that the federal government should promote equitable access to education for all, not pit one state against another.

We think Obama and his forward-thinking education secretary, Arne Duncan, have it right. It’s a competitive world. Competition promotes innovation. Considering Washington students’ chronically low performance in math and science, a minority achievement gap that’s actually growing, and a dropout rate that’s beyond disgraceful, new approaches are clearly needed.

That will take greater clarity of purpose in Olympia, and political courage. To date, that hasn’t been “the Washington way.”

The rest of the world, and other states, aren’t waiting. They understand that education reform is an ongoing process, and an urgent need.

If the Race to the Top competition did Washington any favors, it was to offer an objective report card of just how far we have to go.

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