Washington News

July 27, 2009

Educational pioneer? Not this state

Posted by Patrick O'Callahan

In case you missed it, Washington just flunked the test for school reform.

The failure will sting. States that pass the test are eligible for a piece of $4.35 billion in federal education funding. It looks like Washington’s schools aren’t even in the running.

The money is part of an initiative called “Race to the Top.” Congress and President Barack Obama have charged Education Secretary Arne Duncan (see his commentary on the opposite page) with disbursing it to states that can serve as showcases for what works in public education.

Obama and Duncan told the country Friday how they planned to identify those states. Essentially, a state would have to demonstrate that it can implement successful, student-focused reforms in the face of political obstacles, hidebound K-12 establishments and teachers unions.

Some of their core expectations:

  • A state must connect data on student performance to individual teachers. The logic for this is blindingly obvious: The data connection can not only help evaluate teachers, it can help evaluate the curriculum they use, the schools of education that trained them and the effectiveness of their principals. The failure to make that connection cripples accountability all around. Washington doesn’t make it.
  • A state must reward high-performing teachers. For the most part, Washington does not.
  • A state must encourage educational innovation by not imposing a cap on the number of charter public schools – schools commonly organized and self-governed by teachers and parents. Washington imposes a cap: zero.
  • A state must have a credible way of stepping in and fixing failing schools. Washington doesn’t.

There’s no shame in missing out on federal money if the requirements for the money serve no good purpose. In this case, though, the Obama administration has homed in on characteristics that distinguish flexible, performance-oriented school systems designed to serve students, not power structures.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, who was in Washington, D.C., last week to talk to Duncan and Obama about Race to the Top, returned saying that Washington wouldn’t be seeing any of the money, at least not in this round.

Any chance at it in the next round will depend on whether the Democrats who run the Legislature are willing to stand up to some of their most powerful constituent groups.

Republicans have been arguing for some of these reforms – such as merit pay and charter schools – for decades. Now the arguments are coming from the most liberal Democratic administration this country has seen since the 1960s.

Somebody should get a clue.

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