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Eye On Olympia

Despite shortfall, school reform group presses on…

Last week and again this week, a small group of lawmakers, school officials and others have been grappling with ways to re-tool K-12 education in Washington.

The primary mission of the state's Basic Education Finance task force is to rewrite the complex formula through which the state steers billions of dollars a year to local schools. As things stand now, state Rep. Ross Hunter said recently, that formula “is impenetrable not only to normal people, but it's impenetrable to us.”

That discussion has evolved into a larger debate about school reforms, with some members proposing merit pay for teachers, the state taking over salary negotiations for all 295 school districts, and other major changes. One thing that most members seem to agree on: schools need more money.

“We're grossly underfunded, and that needs to stop,” said Davenport school superintendent Jim Kowalkowski, a member of the group.

Many of the changes are likely to face fierce resistance from the state teacher's union. Arguing to preserve local control of schools, the Washington Education Association's Randy Parr said more state control would result in “McSchools.”

“You know what kind of hamburger you're going to get no matter where it is in the state,” Parr said, “and you also know it's not going to be very good.”

Also controversial: a proposal to attract more math- and science teachers by paying them more than other teachers. That idea “has been one of those that causes people's hair to catch on fire,” said Hunter.

Faced with the recession, the group is now proposing launching the changes over 6-8 years. And despite skepticism about significant reforms, group members insist that change is coming.

“I know a lot of people have blown this process off for the last year and a half and said this will never amount to anything,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson. “Well, get over it.”

And that means more money for schools, task force members say.

“If this doesn't come out at the end with a substantial amount of new money for districts, I'll eat my hat,” said Hunter.

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