Education Issues Are Dominant Theme in Washington State

By Andrew Trotter — October 12, 2004 9 min read
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A reawakened Mount St. Helens is not the only source of tremors in Washington state these days. Education issues that figure in the Nov. 2 general election are stirring up the electorate with an energy the state hasn’t seen in years.

Observers say they can’t predict the fate of two ballot measures: one to hike the sales tax by 1 percentage point to raise $1 billion for education, the other to allow a new charter school law to take effect.

Some see the contest for state superintendent of public instruction—one of five state chiefs’ races on ballots next month—as nothing less than a bellwether on the direction of school policy. That race pits Terry Bergeson, running for her third straight term in office, against challenger Judith Billings, who held the post from 1989 to 1997.

And then there is the gubernatorial election. The winner of that face-off, one of 11 such contests this fall, will replace outgoing Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat who has served since 1997.

Jennifer Vranek, the executive director of the nonpartisan Washington Business Roundtable, says the election will be important to the state’s economic vitality for years to come. “One could look at [charter schools], the superintendent of public instruction race, and [the school tax] as a referendum on education reform,” she said.

As the election nears, Evergreen State educators and other citizens weighing the potential impact of the votes echo the sentiments of tourists jamming the highways leading to their famous volcano: Will they see a harmless blast of steam or a landscape-altering eruption?

Money for Achievement

The outcome of the school tax measure, Initiative 884, will be critical, its supporters say, because chronic budget shortfalls have left schools barely able to make progress on student achievement, and the state salary schedule for teacher has hardly budged for a decade.

The fund created by I-884 would address a long list of K-12 priorities, including lower class sizes, extra help for struggling students, and raises and bonuses for teachers. The money would also help expand preschools and pay for scholarships and 32,000 more spaces for students entering state colleges and universities.

The measure calls for raising the state sales tax by a penny on the dollar, to 7.5 percent—a 15.4 percent increase in what already is one of the highest sales taxes in any state. The measure includes safeguards designed to prevent the state legislature from “supplanting” existing funding.

But the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a research and advocacy organization in Olympia, the state capital, questions whether the schools would use the money wisely. And even I-884 supporters lament that a sales tax puts the fiscal burden disproportionately on the state’s poorer citizens, compared with other taxes.

Such concerns do not outweigh the potential benefits of the measure, local school officials argue.

The Federal Way school district, about 20 miles south of Seattle, would gain an additional $9 million if I-884 passes, making up for two years of reduced state funding—including a $6 million cut last year, said Tom Murphy, the district’s superintendent.

The 22,500-student district includes shopping malls, working-class cul-de-sacs, and a few wealthy enclaves, but no large corporations or industries. The sales tax is the only funding plan on the horizon that can help the district address Washington state’s tough goals for academic improvement, Mr. Murphy said.

A recent visit to Federal Way High School highlighted the kinds of programs that school leaders hope to expand with new money.

Many of the students who flowed through the hallways of the aging complex take part in a remedial summer “bridge” program and a college-preparation group that coaches students in organizational and study skills, Principal Randy Kaczor said.

“It’s helping me get my stuff together,” said Terrell Smith, a senior, referring to the group.

More fundamental is the school’s “house” system for students in grades 9 and 10. Groups of 150 students share the same four English, social studies, science, and mathematics teacher for two years. The teachers meet weekly to discuss their students’ academic and behavioral needs and take joint steps when a student is having problems.

But it takes extra money to cover staffing gaps during planning sessions, Mr. Kaczor said.

Charter Schools

Another measure on the ballot, Referendum 55, would be the final word on the state’s charter school law. Voters’ endorsement would allow charter schools to be established in Washington state for the first time, after years of discord over the issue.

The charter school bill, passed in March by the legislature, became the subject of a repeal drive over the summer. That effort led to Referendum 55, a measure placed on the ballot by the legislature. The referendum essentially asks voters to cast a “yes” or “no” ballot on the law.

A modest law compared with those adopted by many other states, the measure enacted earlier this year would allow only 45 new charter schools in the first six years. Each year, the majority of new charters for the public but largely independent schools would have to focus primarily on serving educationally disadvantaged students. “Conversion” charter schools could also be established from existing public schools.

But the law is poison to the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association. The union, which represents 76,000 educators in the state, says the law would eventually drain $100 million from regular public schools annually. Some observers suggest that the union is especially concerned that the law bars teachers in charter schools from joining a local district’s collective bargaining unit for five years.

It was state Superintendent Bergeson’s support of the charter school law, as part of a larger legislative package, that turned the affiliate of the National Education Association against her, and toward Ms. Billings, whom the union’s political action committee endorsed this past summer for the nonpartisan schools chief’s job.

Ms. Bergeson, herself a former teacher and president of the wea, insists that public school educators have nothing to fear from charters.

In an Oct. 2 debate at the University of Washington, here in Seattle, she said it is a better law than three earlier charter school bills that she opposed, including one that Ms. Billings had backed.

Ms. Billings replied that she has been convinced by the failures of two state charter school initiatives over the past decade. “The public has made it known time and time again,” the former state chief said, “that they want more money in the regular school program.”

In a separate debate on charter schools at the event, which was hosted by the Rainier Institute, a nonpartisan think tank on school reform, Catharane Ahn of the Washington League of Women Voters argued that charter schools erode democracy because their governing boards are not directly elected, like district school boards.

The charter school proponent debating her, Gina Ottoboni, of Approve Ref. 55: Improve Our Public Schools, replied that charter schools would generate a raft of new approaches for educating students who are at risk of academic failure.

State Test an Issue

When it comes to the election for state superintendent, both Mr. Murphy and Mr. Kaczor, the Federal Way High principal, said they support Ms. Bergeson.

“I think a change now in direction would really negate the work we’ve put together in the last five to 10 years,” Mr. Murphy said.

But teachers interviewed at Federal Way High School appeared solidly behind Ms. Billings. One of the reasons comes down to the candidates’ attitudes toward the 10th grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, as a graduation requirement, beginning in 2008.

Ms. Bergeson helped establish the requirement, which she continues to back. In contrast, Ms. Billings would remove the test as a graduation requirement and use broader measures of student progress. Both candidates, meanwhile, support I-884, the education sales-tax proposal.

Federal Way High has become preoccupied with the WASL, which has made the faculty’s daily work stressful and dampened the joy of teaching, agreed several 10th grade teachers in the midst of a planning session.

“I don’t want the WASL to go away; I’ve seen the other end, when people teach what they want to teach all year—like whales,” said Jenny Williams, the 10th grade science teacher. “I like the sense of balance Judith had,” referring to Ms. Billings’ call for using a broader array of assessments, including portfolios, to judge students’ progress.

History teacher Katie O’Brian said the preoccupation with the WASL has meant that “content has been reduced to very little—I’m teaching summarization.”

“If we had smaller classes, I think this test wouldn’t have been necessary,” said Angela McDonald, the English teacher, bringing the discussion back to school finances.

Although some supporters of Ms. Bergeson predict a policy “train wreck” if Ms. Billings is elected, both candidates show command of the issues and overall confidence in the state’s education system.

Some observers add that even if she wanted to, Ms. Billings could do nothing to remove the WASL as a graduation requirement or as an accountability measure for the federal No Child Left Behind Act without the legislature’s assent.

A New Governor

The winner of the governor’s race will also weigh heavily in any prospective changes.

Democrat Christine O. Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi are in a tight race that seems to hinge on issues other than education.

Ms. Gregoire, the state attorney general, scooped up the wea’s endorsement by taking a position against the ballot measure on charter schools, while promising to modify the WASL without committing to discontinue its use as a graduation test.

Mr. Rossi, who resigned from the state Senate to run for governor, favors charter schools. He also wants to make teachers and schools more accountable for performance, and would support performance-based pay for teachers.

Both candidates, however, oppose I-884, while pledging to tackle the state’s chronic problems in paying for education. Ms. Gregoire says the sales tax is regressive, while Mr. Rossi says he will not support a tax imposed by a voter initiative.

Those positions are worrisome to I-884 backers, who say the schools need a quick fix to serve students now, while more permanent solutions wend their way through the legislative process.

“Neither candidate has said much about the issues,” said state Rep. Fred Jarrett, a Republican, who attended the Oct. 2 education event.

“There’s not a lot of original thinking in our platform,” Mr. Jarrett said, referring to the state GOP. “The problem, in my opinion, is that in the legislature, education is an ideological issue, when it’s really a service-delivery issue.”


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