January 20, 1998 in Nation/World

Legislature Studying Up On Division Gop Splits With Locke, Democrats On Education

David Ammons Associated Press

Schools have become a political hot potato, with majority legislative Republicans splitting with Gov. Gary Locke and legislative Democrats over the best approaches to public education.

Skirmishes are shaping up over a GOP plan to order phonics instruction and to allow tax vouchers for people who want to send their children to private schools.

Proposals to ease into full-day kindergarten and to allow the formation of charter schools are getting a better reception on both sides of the political aisle, but the kindergarten measure could run afoul of the Republicans’ tough line on budget increases.

Democrats, meanwhile, are touting their own proposals, including relatively small appropriations for reducing class sizes, providing extra help for students who need it and training teachers in how to use technology in the classroom.

Locke has an education package of his own, highlighted by a $24 million program for training a corps of volunteers to help children learn to read.

House Republicans, with the backing of Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, came out with their “Kids First!” education agenda Monday. Key points include:

A reading program that requires districts with poor reading scores to use phonics and a range of instruction methods, rather than the “whole language” method now in vogue. Phonics involves sounding out syllables as each new word is learned; “whole language” involves seeing the entire word in the context of a body of copy. Another bill would require new elementary teachers to get college instruction in how to teach reading.

A charter-school bill that would allow the formation of 25 publicly funded independent schools that would be largely free of state regulation. The House plan would allow 50 of the charter schools next year and an unlimited number later on. The House approved such a plan last year, but it died in the Senate.

Vouchers to be allowed in the state’s largest school districts. Parents could apply their education taxes toward tuition for a private, nonsectarian school.

Expansion of kindergarten to daylong programs. Taxpayers now provide free half-day kindergarten, and some districts offer an optional full-day program for families willing to pay the extra cost.

A requirement that all 10th-graders pass an academic achievement test before they move toward graduation. The Basic Academic Requirements Test would replace the “certificate of mastery” which is mentioned in the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act.

The GOP plans were presented at a news conference by House Education Chairwoman Peggy Johnson, R-Shelton, and ranking Republicans Gigi Talcott, R-Lakewood, and Tim Hickel, R-Federal Way.

Johnson said the driving force behind the package is concern for the 30,000 students who failed the reading portion of statewide tests last year. Less than half the fourth-graders got passing marks on the first test since higher standards were adopted by the state as part of education reform.

“Far too many children are being left behind,” condemning them to a lifetime of underachievement, Johnson said.

Republicans conceded that the proposals run counter to the GOP theme of getting Olympia off the backs of local districts.

“We don’t like to see mandates on local schools, but we cannot allow this problem to go unsolved and leave 30,000 kids behind each year,” Johnson said.

Talcott said the “soft approach” of trying to suggest, but not require, better teaching methods has not worked.

Ranking Democrats on the House and Senate Education committees sat in on the GOP event and later declared much of the proposals unacceptable. State government has no business ordering teaching styles or specific curricula, said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, and Rep. Grace Cole, D-Seattle.

“It sets a precedent,” said McAuliffe. “Are we going to tell them how to teach science or math or art?”

Locally elected school boards, not state lawmakers, are best able to determine approaches that will work in their districts, Cole said.

The legislators said Democrats won’t accept a voucher program, noting that state voters rejected it overwhelmingly when it was on the ballot in 1996.

A charter school plan, also rejected by voters that year, might work if it gives local school boards some authority and if it starts as a pilot project so the kinks can be worked out, McAuliffe said.

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