Published Online: February 26, 2010

Wash. Governor Confident of School Reform Efforts

Some have criticized Gov. Chris Gregoire's education reform proposal for lacking boldness, but she said the bill moving through the Legislature has everything necessary to prepare the state to apply for millions of new dollars from the federal government.

Gregoire said during an interview Thursday that the reform proposal was the result of careful negotiations among the state principals association, the state teacher's union, the superintendent of public instruction and the governor.

"Everybody compromised," she said.

The application for Race to the Top dollars calls on states to commit to at least some things on a list of reforms, such as improving teacher evaluation, agreeing to national education standards and fixing the lowest performing schools.

The federal reform initiative promises to distribute $4.3 billion to states that embrace school reform, but only a fraction of the states that apply will get any of this money.

The governor's plan includes a new school accountability plan from the State Board of Education; the first state evaluation criteria for principals, who have been evaluated under general administrative guidelines; alternative new ways to become a teacher; and plans to pay teachers more for innovation, improving achievement gaps or developing a program that focuses on science and technology.

The state's application for Race to the Top is due in June. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is expected to announce next week the semifinalists from the first round of applications, which were submitted in January by 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Gregoire said that announcement will give the rest of the states a better idea of what the federal government is looking for in the way of reform. But she seemed confident that Washington was heading in the right direction, and said the reforms would help students whether or not they brought extra dollars to the state.

Her plan has passed the Senate and has been approved by the House Education Committee. It is currently in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Washington's Race to the Top application will be unique in several ways, the governor said. It will focus on public-private partnerships, it will talk about reform from pre-school through college, and everyone from school districts to the teacher's union is on board with the plan.

The bill updates the way teachers are evaluated for the first time in 20 years, giving principals and superintendents the tools and criteria they need to fire teachers who don't belong in the classroom in as fast as 60 days, Gregoire said.

State schools chief Randy Dorn and dozens of school superintendents sent a letter to lawmakers on Tuesday, urging them to approve the reform bill after enhancing the measure to make it stronger, including establishing a more specific teacher evaluation process.

But Gregoire said Thursday she thinks the more specific plan proposed by the superintendents — which would include putting teachers back on a year of probation after a year of retraining — could actually lengthen the process to fire an ineffective teacher.

Gregoire said she congratulated Duncan on the way he was using a carrot to encourage education reform rather than the stick used by the previous administration through the punitive No Child Left Behind law.

"I was the one who said, 'You're a genius. You got your hands on all this money. You held it out as a carrot. You've made more reform — without spending a penny — than anybody,'" she said.

Some governors are concerned, however, that these reforms will eventually be tied to other federal programs like Title I for schools with needy students, and then the reform program may start looking more like mandates, Gregoire said.

The governor also discussed a Superior Court judge's ruling last month in a school funding lawsuit, saying the state may decide to appeal. She cited unclear passages in Judge John Erlick's decision concerning facilities and what specifically the state needs to do to be in compliance.

She said the state may need a ruling by the Washington Supreme Court to prevent future confusion and more lawsuits.

The final decision on whether to appeal is up the attorney general, said Gregoire. A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said they were weighing their options and would make a decision within the next month.

The education reform measure is Senate Bill 6696.

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