Disturbing trend: Making schools a partisan issue

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OLYMPIA — Should every Washington public school be assigned a letter grade, similar to the grades students past and present have been given by their teachers?

The seemingly simple idea has become a litmus test of sorts among those who seek to politicize education and education reform.

After newly empowered state Senate Republicans recently included that concept among a trio of reform bills, Democrats and the school establishment protested. One dubbed it an example of “blaming and shaming” – blaming the problems in public education on teachers and school personnel, shaming by forcing them to wear the scarlet letter “F.”

The other bills would require third-graders who are not reading at grade level by the end of the school year to be held back, and would order the state school superintendent to take over public schools that fail year after year.

“Senators question GOP push to bring corporate strategy to WA education,” read the press release in which Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said none of the bills make sense for Washington.

“And no wonder,” he said. “They’re cookie-cutter proposals copied from Florida and Louisiana.”

Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, termed them “part of a right-wing Tea Party agenda.” And in a different release, Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, asked: “Why does the Republican majority support flunking 8-year-olds?”

“I think it’s fair for parents to ask whether Senate Republicans are, in fact, taking orders from Jeb Bush and following his national agenda to move toward privatizing our public schools,” Harper’s statement said.

Bush gets cited not because he has been a leader in school reform since his days as Florida governor and not because he almost single-handedly halted a right-wing reaction to Common Core Standards that Washington and more than 40 other states are adopting to guide curriculum.

Instead he has become a bogeyman because his school reform foundation accepted money from companies that could benefit from changes such as online education and charter schools.

OK, let’s take a breath here. All the ideas included in these bills and others have been around for awhile, and supporters come from both parties. Rather than reject them based on who or what group has touched them, let’s talk about the ideas and the problems they seek to resolve.

• While we probably shouldn’t hold back every third-grader who isn’t reading at grade level, we do know that such students are more likely to fail later and more likely to drop out. If they are not held back until they can read, then what? And more importantly, when?

• The state must have a response for schools and districts that continue to fail and that aren’t interested in attempts to bring them up to standards. If not an intervention by the superintendent, then what?

• The state already grades each school in the state and is beefing up that process as part of the waiver granted last summer from federal No Child Left Behind requirements. Rather than letter grades, this Achievement Index will grade schools either exemplary, very good, good, fair or struggling. Is that really so far off from A, B, C, D, F, and is it really a partisan issue?

For instance, guess who said this last May during his interview with the ed-reform group Stand for Children.

“We have a quarter of our children who are sort of forgotten children, and that is going to be unacceptable when I’m governor. That’s one of the reasons I’m proposing (that) every school will have a letter grade that will be given and disseminated then to the parents in the district so that we hold ourselves accountable.”

Was it Republican Rob McKenna? Nope. It was Democrat Jay Inslee, who lost Stand for Children’s endorsement despite the fact that his position on most ed reform bills is pretty close to Stand’s. (The video is posted on our Political Buzz at blog.thenewstribune.com/politics.)

So Senate Democrats couldn’t be talking about Gov. Inslee when they dub these right-wing, or Tea Party, or corporate ideas, could they?

Perhaps the problem isn’t bills that keep pushing for improvements in public schools. Perhaps it’s the disturbing trend by both political extremes to define all education issues in terms of partisan campaign politics.

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

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