Pros, cons of combining education panels discussed

  • Melissa Slager<br>For the Enterprise
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 6:56am

Drooling toddlers, homework-weary teenagers and philosophy majors now have one thing in common – a one-stop forum in the state Senate.

The new Early Learning, K-12 and Higher Education committee combines the former education and higher education committees and adds early childhood education.

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, was recently tapped as its chairwoman.

With 16 members, the new committee is second only to Ways and Means in size.

“This gives us a chance to have a big voice for education,” McAuliffe said.

Groups such as the state Higher Education Coordinating Board and the grassroots League of Education Voters praise the approach.

“Everyone has finally caught on to the notion that we’re all one system. And that the territorial divides … are quite artificial and unnecessary,” said James Sulton Jr., executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

But some worry the committee will be too unwieldy. The topics it will handle including preschool quality, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and opening up more enrollment in the state’s colleges.

“They’ve turned it into a super committee, and I don’t know that it’s going to produce super results,” said Sen. Dave Schmidt of Mill Creek, the committee’s ranking Republican.

Schmidt has served on the education and higher education committees. “It’s an issue of quality attention. Just in the higher education committee, the number of bills and issues that came before the committee was tough to keep a handle on. Now you’re doubling that.”

Early learning, which includes preschool and intervention programs, is most likely to get lost in the shuffle, he said.

It’s a fear shared by Lorrie Milford of Everett, who directs the Volunteers of America’s child-care resource and referral services. Helping children in the early stages of life is critical to their future success, she said.

“Each of these areas is really critical,” added Milford, who also is public policy chairwoman for the Snohomish County Association for the Education of Young Children. “And how on Earth they’re going to work as a group to divide the dollars – I wish them well.”

McAuliffe knows the committee will be lobbied hard.

“There are not a lot of dollars in the budget. We have to use the dollars as efficiently as possible, and not fight over them, because we are one,” she said.

The former Northshore school board member added that early learning is important to her. She plans to sponsor a bill that would help parents pick quality preschools by giving programs a stamp of approval if they follow state standards designed to prepare kids for kindergarten.

But issues related to the transition between high school and college are likely to be a major focus when the session begins Monday, Jan. 10.

The Higher Education Coordinating Board, for example, recently recommended tougher admission standards in response to the rate of remedial education needed by entering freshmen, particularly in math.

Committee members also will address alternative tests for high-school students who, beginning with the class of 2008, must pass the WASL to graduate.

Melissa Slager is a reporter with The Herald in Everett.

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