True bipartisan effort focuses on helping state's struggling schools

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OLYMPIA — Back in January when it was first discussed, Senate Bill 5329 was labeled as another attempt to blame and shame public schools.

Then called “the state superintendent school district” bill, it sought to turn over the state’s persistently failing schools to Randy Dorn and his successors. The 50 or so schools across the state that produce poor results and seem immune to change or improvement would then be turned over to nonprofit school management organizations. Once results were improved, the schools would be returned to local districts.

Prime Sponsor Steve Litzow, the Mercer Island Republican who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the bill would build on the current system of pushing schools rated among the worst into improvement plans. Only schools that still don’t improve would draw the attention of the state schools chief.

“We’re failing 18,000 kids a year and they are disproportionately poor children of color,” Litzow said. “At some point, we need to do something. We do not have time to sit around and wait and fail another 18,000 kids.”

The bill was heard the same day as one to assign A-F letter grades to schools and another to require third graders to read at grade level or be held back. Taken together, the bills were attributed by Democrats to a conservative political movement to privatize public schools. The teachers union, school board members, principals, superintendents, even Dorn himself lined up to oppose them.

“While policy makers may be frustrated by what you see as a lack of progress,” said Marie Sullivan of the state school directors association, “school directors are extremely frustrated with the Legislature’s lack of ample funding of education.”

Since then, A-F grades has remained controversial among some Democrats, despite Gov. Jay Inslee’s conditional support. Third-grade reading is now more carrot than stick. And the real education battle of the 2013 legislative session is just now beginning – the budget and how it responds to a state Supreme Court demand to fully fund schools from the state level.

But quietly, away from the loud voices and the political opportunists, a revised version of SB 5329 has been negotiated, rewritten, revised, debated, adopted and sent to Inslee. The governor has said through a spokesman that he supports it and has $12.5 million in his budget plan to implement it.

In a year when so many claim bipartisanship, whether it exists or not, this version truly is. The final version passed the House 68-29 with the majority consisting of 45 Democrats and 23 Republicans. The Senate agreed Friday by a 44-3 vote.

Dorn also supports it now. While the state schools chief would no longer formally take over local schools, he would be empowered to do everything but. If a failing school, regardless of whether it qualifies as a high-poverty school, has gone through a three-year transformation process without improvement, Dorn’s office could move in.

The state would first work with a local school board to come up with a plan. If they can’t agree, though, the SPI would develop a plan and submit it to the State Board of Education for approval.

The SPI could order staff contract renegotiations and tell local staff to carry out the plan over the objections of their school board or superintendent. The state could withhold funding if they don’t. Finally, the state could order that a school be closed.

Not all struggling schools would be the focus by this bill, only those that are immune from improvement, that develop a culture of failure, that are written off by school districts.

School transformations are possible. Of the three Tacoma low-income middle schools using federal school improvement grants, two have climbed in the state Achievement Index.

But a third has shown little improvement and remains in the bottom half of the bottom range. It is this type of school that SB 5329 is meant for so districts know they must act.

“Any credible accountability system has to have a ‘must’ at the bottom of it,” said Ben Rarick, the executive director of the State Board of Education.

Peter Callaghan can be reached at peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com

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