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Washington State Lawmakers Attempt to Strip Powers From State Board

By Daarel Burnette II — February 14, 2017 5 min read
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Correction appended.

One of the big hurdles to pushing for education change in states is that, oftentimes, it’s not exactly clear who’s in charge. This has become a big issue as states craft their accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law dictates who has to be consulted, but doesn’t specify who has the final say and state constitutions aren’t always clear.

Enter Washington state, where an ongoing legal battle over school funding and the pending ESSA plan has collided in a way that could lead to fundamental changes to the Evergreen State’s power structure for the coming years.

Currently, local school board members and the state’s superintendent of public instruction are elected. Seven of the state’s 12 school board members are appointed by the governor and the other five are appointed by local school board members. Local school board members report to the state superintendent, who reports to the state school board. But who crafts and approves policy has been pretty murky—and it could soon get murkier.

The legislature’s House of Representatives heard a bill Monday that essentially would gut the state board of most of its powers and hand those powers to the state’s superintendent.

House Bill 1886 takes from the state’s board of education and places in the hands of the state superintendent the power to identify and take over low-performing schools and establish some standards for high school graduates, and appoint charter authorizers.

Most importantly, the bill would put the state’s superintendent in charge of creation and execution of the state’s accountability system and many of the state’s federally funded programs.

In an interview with Education Week last week, the recently elected state superintendent of public instruction (the office is non-partisan), Chris Reykdal, (a former legislator himself) said that because legislators will soon be paying the majority of the state’s education costs under a soon-to-be recalibrated funding formula, it should be the legislature that crafts the majority of the state’s education policy.

“I’m very sincere about telling our legislature that if we’re expected to set up a few billion dollars more for education, you should have an opinion about accountability,” Reykdal said.

The state is under a 2012 state supreme court order, McCleary v. Washington, to take on more education costs, including teacher pay. The state is expected to pour up to $2 billion more into its funding formula this year, though party leaders can’t come to an agreement over how to do it.

Since being elected, Reykdal said he has moved with “lightning speed” on the creation of the state’s ESSA plan and taken much of the policymaking out of the department and state board meeting rooms and straight to the state’s House and Senate education committees.

Ben Rarick, the state board’s executive director, said board members are best suited to craft the details of the state’s accountability policy, not legislators.

“We’re entering an era, with the importance of ESSA, where most of the board’s signature authoritiy in terms of state accountability systems is being stripped,” Rarick said. “The board has been a significant player in improving the state’s accountability system, and it’s the main way that stakeholders see transparency in public deliberations on these topics.”

Rarick pointed out that state boards meet year round and have the ability to respond to federal regulatory guidance.

“So much has changed in just the last two to three weeks,” Rarick said, referring to the regulatory rulemaking process at the federal level where congress has moved to scrap its current accountability regulations. “My view is that the legislature has the authority and the right to set accountability policy. But there’s a certain point at which ... state boards of education should be left to craft the nuances and the complete picture of our accountability system.”

In past years, a bill was proposed to totally eliminate the state board of education, and in 2014 the legislature considered making the board solely appointed by the governor.

Washington’s state school board is one of many that are struggling to hold onto their powers.

ESSA, which devolves significant policymaking power from the federal government to state governments, is being seen by state board members and their advocates as an opportunity to reassert their authority.

Kristen Amundson, the president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education, told me last week that one of the biggest reasons state boards of education are best suited to craft education policy is that, increasingly, they are the most permanent fixture in state government, and state board members often have the longest tenures and most extensive education experience. As I point out in a story this week, a quarter of House and Senate education chairs this year are new to the job, and a quarter of state superintendents have been in the job for less than a year. (The average state superintendent has been in the job for just two and a half years, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers.) Fewer than half the lawmakers who head up their chambers’ education committees have K-12 education experience, such as teaching or serving on a local school board. Ten state superintendents have never taught in a classroom.

I wrote about the power dynamics between state government powers last year shortly after ESSA was passed, but as the deadline for submitting ESSA plans to the federal government approaches, battles between state superintendents, state board members, and legislators has intensified.

Examples abound.

Louisiana’s state board and superintendent has an entirely different ESSA draft plan than its governor-appointed task force.

Arizona, where the governor-appointed board has legally sparred with the state’s elected superintendent, rushed through an accountability plan that devolves most power to local school board members and superintendents.

And New Mexico last week rejected a bill that would have re-established a state board to oversee its state superintendent.

Correction: This post was corrected to accurately capture the makeup of the state board, and the bill’s proposed role for the state board of education over graduation standards and charter schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.