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Wash. Lawmakers Settle on K-12 Reforms

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State lawmakers passed a bundle of major education reforms Thursday, including a plan that should help the state compete for the Obama administration's $4.35 billion Race to the Top program.

The education bills were the last major measures approved by the Democrat-led House and Senate on the final day of the 60-day regular session. They will be returning Monday for a special session to finish work on the state budget, but lawmakers were trumpeted the education agenda as a significant step forward.

"We accomplished a lot of education reform here today," said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, who called the bills "a tremendous effort that really came together at the end."

The Race to the Top program 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.

Washington is hoping to draw some money in the second round of Race to the Top financing, with an application due in June.

"At the current time, we have very little chance of getting a grant from the Race to the Top program," said Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. "But hopefully, with these changes to our system, we will be in a much better position to compete with other states."

The bill passed Thursday allows the state to intervene in schools that are failing — a step that has been left at the local level until now. It also changes the way principals and teachers are evaluated, bumps automatic tenure rights to 3 years instead of 2 years for many teachers, and paves the way for nonprofit organizations to issue teacher certifications.

Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, who pushed hard for legislators to approve the reforms, praised the work Thursday night. "It required a lot of work and patience, and it paid off," she said.

Minority Republicans had criticism for the program, but still offered some support for the changes.

"While I have some reservations on this in terms of its effect and its impact, I do believe it justifies us moving forward," said Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way.

A second major bill builds on previous attempts to overhaul the way Washington pays for basic public education, which has a very strong mandate in the state constitution.

Reforms in the second bill include a new financing model for "prototypical" schools, phased-in smaller classes in kindergarten through 3rd grade by the 2015-16 school year, more state spending on maintenance and operations, and a new payment method for student transportation costs.

A third bill establishes a voluntary early learning program for 3- and 4-year-olds in September 2011, calling for the program to be phased in over several years before eventually becoming an entitlement for all eligible children.

Democrats praised that bill as a major step toward boosting early education, but Republicans said the program sets up an expensive new program that state lawmakers don't yet have a certain way of financing.

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