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Education reform still alive, lawmakers say

Sun., Jan. 9, 2011, midnight

SEATTLE – With cash-strapped schools struggling for scarce dollars this legislative session, a public fight that recently erupted between the governor and the schools chief could make things more complicated.

With the Legislature set to convene Monday for a 105-day session, Gov. Chris Gregoire has essentially proposed replacing Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn with a new secretary of education.

Gregoire’s proposal would bring control of all the state’s education departments and boards under one leadership structure. The governor said she is open to debating the superintendent’s future but her aim is accountability.

“I’m not going to let that discussion get in the way of doing what I think is right, no more than I’m going to let the recession get in the way,” she said.

Dorn called the governor’s proposal a smoke screen to distract attention from more pressing state issues.

He said lawmakers should focus instead on putting a down payment on the state’s plan to fully pay for basic education, to show the Washington Supreme Court they’re making an effort in advance of the court’s decision on a lawsuit against the state.

“The most pressing issue we face is a lack of funding,” Dorn said.

On that, the governor and everyone else in state government seems to agree.

“This year, particularly, is going to be a difficult year for all of us,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, chairwoman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

Both Democrats and Republicans said they didn’t expect the outcome from the Legislature to be all bad news for education. Most expect to move education reform forward, despite the lack of money, but the move may be very slight.

“I don’t know that we can do very much, but we need to do something,” McAuliffe said.

Both the governor and a legislative committee focused on education reform want to pay for two reforms this year: the second year of a two-year pilot of new teacher and principal evaluation systems, and the full cost of transporting kids to and from school. The governor’s budget includes a $90 million increase in school transportation dollars and more than $20 million to pay for evaluation reform.

The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee said education reform must continue even during a time of severe budget stress. Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said he would support the down payments, but also has some ideas for possible spending cuts.

Dammeier would like to see state government take a closer look at how money is being spent on two programs – the Learning Assistance Program for struggling students and the Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program for students who do not speak and read English fluently. He wants to know whether the government is getting a good return on its investments.

“Those are existing programs that need to be reformed from within – not that we need to do away with them,” he said.

Gregoire has made a number of other education proposals in advance of the legislative session, including:

• The plan to create a state Department of Education that would take over the duties handled by the voter-elected state school superintendent and other agencies, and establishing a secretary of education.

• A renewed effort to allow Washington’s colleges and universities to set their own tuition rates, within a framework that considers state dollars going to education and the tuition rates at similar schools.

• Another biennium without raises for teachers or money for class size reduction in the early grades, as well as a suspension of the $5,000-a-year bonuses for nationally board certified teachers.

• Across-the-board cuts in higher education totaling about $102 million, paired with a proposal for a new $1 billion scholarship fund supported by private and corporate donations.


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