Washington Gov. Signs K-12 Reform Bills Into Law

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Gov. Chris Gregoire returned to her hometown high school Monday to sign into law a package of education bills, including a plan that could help the state compete for a slice of the Obama administration's $4.35 billion Race to the Top program.

Other measures significantly increase the state's spending on public education, allow local officials to ask voters for more property tax money, and set up a new early learning program for preschool children.

After the bill-signing ceremony at Auburn High School, Gregoire praised the state for not giving up on improving public education — even though a severe fiscal downturn has crimped spending on many government programs.

"Today is a really defining moment in our state when it comes to education," said Gregoire, a Democrat. "Despite the fact we're in the worst recession in history, the Legislature and I have stood up to the challenge to create a world-class education system. So I'm very proud."

The education bills were among the last measures approved by the Democrat-led House and Senate at the end of the Legislature's 60-day regular session. Lawmakers are now entering the third week of a special session, dedicated to agreeing on a package of tax increases to help bridge a $2.8 billion budget deficit.

Some of the biggest changes approved by Gregoire on Monday were spurred by the federal Race to the Top program, which calls on states to commit to at least some steps on a list of reforms, such as improving teacher evaluation, agreeing to national education standards and fixing the lowest-performing schools.

Tennessee and Delaware were announced as the first-round Race to the Top winners Monday. Washington is hoping to draw some money in the second round of Race to the Top financing, with an application due in June.

The Washington reforms include a way for the state to intervene in schools that are failing — a step that has been left at the local level until now. The bill 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.

Even if the state doesn't land some federal money, the reforms will still improve the education system, Gregoire said.

"We will compete," she said. "But win or lose Race to the Top, we're going to guarantee that our kids are successful."

A leading GOP legislator on education policy, Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, echoed praise for the reforms. But even though he voted for the bill, Priest said the state should have done even more.

"I think we learned this morning that the Obama administration expects these proposals to be very competitive, and unfortunately, I think this is closer to a race to the middle," Priest said.

A second major education bill builds on recommendations from the state's Quality Education Council to overhaul the way Washington pays for basic public education, which has a strong mandate in the state constitution.

That measure includes 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.

When fully implemented, the financing plan will increase the state's commitment to education by billions of dollars. At present, Washington spends about $13.5 billion over each two-year budget period on public education.

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 through 2018-19, eventually becoming an entitlement for all eligible children.

While many lawmakers praise that bill as a major step toward boosting early education, some Republicans have warned that it sets up an expensive new program for which state lawmakers don't yet have a certain way of financing.

A fourth bill lifts the "lid" on local property tax levies by 4 percentage points for 2011-17 and allows school districts to ask their voters for money.

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