Education Bills

Many PTA parents have written in about a number of bills and I’m consolidating my responses in one post. The critical decisions we make about education this year will be how we decide to move forward with a long-term budget strategy. We need to decide as a state if we are going to live up to the needs of our children or not. I’ll write more about the options here in another post.

HB 1443 – Education Reform

This is a pretty comprehensive bill that modernizes a number of our funding streams and continues making data about what’s working and not working available to the public in a readable, consistent manner. The summary below is from the bill report:

  • Requires the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) to ensure that a fairness and bias review has been conducted before implementing revisions to the state Essential Academic Learning Requirements.
  • Requires school districts to adopt a policy defining a high school credit and authorizes the State Board of Education to repeal a seat-time based definition.
  • Authorizes the SPI to require use of a kindergarten readiness assessment in low-performing schools receiving federal school improvement grants.
  • Allows Learning Assistance Program (LAP) funds to be used to support students in science and requires a study of the impact of remediation strategies funded by the LAP on student achievement.
  • Requires student performance data from the Transitional Bilingual Instructional Program to be reported online through the Washington State Report Card.
  • Adopts a definition of a highly capable student and directs the SPI to adopt consistent procedures for school districts to identify, assess, and select their most highly capable students for purposes of the Highly Capable Program.
  • Allows qualified graduates of the Recruiting Washington Teachers Program in high schools to participate on a space-available basis in an alternative route teacher preparation scholarship program.
  • Directs a Compensation Working Group to conduct a comprehensive analysis of educator professional development and mentoring needs.

It seems pretty reasonable and I’m supportive.

HB 1600 – Elementary Mathematics Specialists

I’m not as excited about this bill as I am about 1443. The bill basically creates a new job definition in elementary schools – a “math specialist.” This may be a practical response to the lack of math expertise in elementary school teachers, but I think it goes in the wrong direction strategically.

Across the state we have 40-50% turnover in the first 5 years of teaching careers in elementary school. This is a mixed blessing. Teachers typically improve substantially in their first few years on the job, so losing them so fast is a bad thing – we waste the investment in giving new teachers experience. The upside is that new entrance requirements for elementary school teachers can change the makeup of the teaching corps quickly.

I’d rather see us ensure that all of our elementary school teachers have a very strong grasp of mathematics through algebra and geometry. This does not seem unreasonable, given that many 6th graders are learning these skills and we require them as a graduation requirement from high school.

HB 1412/SB 5227 Math Graduation Requirements

This bill deals with our mathematics graduation requirements. We are in the process of switching from a single large test required for graduation (the WASL) to individual tests that are given at the end of the specific courses, specifically Algebra I and Geometry. The idea here is that you want kids to have the test happen in close proximity to the time they are finishing the course, which strikes me as a good idea. Tenth graders may have had algebra in 7th or 8th grade, or may be taking it in 10th grade and not have had geometry yet. I don’t care when kids learn Algebra, I just care that they know it.

There’s a timing problem when switching over from the older test and this bill allows students to take and pass one of the two tests and graduate. This is probably OK for a limited time period, but there is a huge amount of data that we do our young people a disservice by not ensuring that they learn these gateway skills. Kids who succeed at algebra 2 and take a real math class their senior year in high school are twice as likely to graduate from community college than kids who do not.

HB 1510 – Kindergarten Assessments

Part of our long-term efforts to improve both our early learning system and our K12 system require that we have some knowledge about literacy skills of kids as they arrive in Kindergarten. I think this is a reasonable bill. The goal is to get a baseline assessment of skills, not to create a “baby WASL” and I think it’s fine.

HB 1609 – Teacher layoffs

This is a very contentious bill that does two things:

  1. Allows school districts to use performance evaluations in layoff decisions, rather than totally basing layoffs on seniority.
  2. Creates a “mutual consent” model for teacher hiring. The teacher and principal both must agree before a teacher can be placed in a school building.

To understand this you have to understand how teacher evaluations work. Today less than one percent of teachers are rated unacceptable so this doesn’t have much practical impact. A program that I do believe will have practical impact is our effort to create a real evaluation system that uses student learning as part of the analysis, and that affects more than a fraction of a percent of teachers. Every state that has created a functional evaluation system has taken years to do so, and we will not be an exception. We are at the very beginning of this process.

I support the concept here which is why I co-sponsored the bill. I think we should most certainly consider competence in our hiring/firing and compensation decisions. However, teachers have a lot of legitimate concerns about arbitrary evaluations being used in hire/fire decisions and it’s important to make sure the evaluation system is ready to support decisions of this magnitude. I am not sure that it is at this point. I’m also hoping that we are largely done with teacher layoffs. That would make this part of the bill mostly moot.

The part I really like is called “mutual consent.” Having a culture in a school that works is incredibly important to student success. Allowing principals to construct their staffs to build that culture is important. This part of the bill would require that no teacher placements happen without both the teacher and the principal agreeing to it. A teacher should be able to refuse an assignment to a principal he or she doesn’t think they can work for, and a principal should be able to not hire a teacher that he or she doesn’t believe would be a good fit for the school.

The bill failed to pass out of the Education committee by the deadline and is mostly dead for the session. Sometimes bills come back from the dead, but I don’t think this one will.

1415 – Prioritizing Basic Education in the Budget Process

This is a proposal that has been floating around for several years to split the operating budget into two parts – education and everything else. The education part would have to be done first.

I don’t think this is a good idea for a variety of reasons:

  1. Many of the decisions we make affect both the education budget and the rest of the budget. For example, the level of pension funding we adopt is a critical, and very large, number. It applies to every agency in the budget, and can’t get made until the entire framework is understood.  Compensation decisions also cut across the entire budget.
  2. This would add weeks to the legislative session. It takes a long time to go through the legislative process for a budget. Making our budget decisions in series rather than in parallel is guaranteed to make the entire process take forever.

Adding process that doesn’t improve outcomes isn’t the technique that will produce a better budgetary outcome for education. I’ve chosen a different strategy that I think will work better. What we’re doing is:

  1. Change the structure of the education budget so it is very, very transparent. People will understand how we are spending money and what our choices are. The new budget structure goes into place for the 2011-13 budget.
  2. Create a plan for moving forward, and make it very visible if we depart from the plan. This was the main effort behind my work on the Basic Education Financing Task Force and the major bills we passed in this area in 2009 and 2010.
  3. Make every improvement we add to the education system part of the legal definition of “basic education” so that we cannot move backwards once something has been adopted.

My personal belief is that this strategy will be more effective than just changing the budget process. Every major education stakeholder group agreed with the proposal we brought forward in the last Legislature, including the PTA. I’d like to continue with this effort and not confuse the budget process.

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.