Republican ‘reforms’ distract from meaningful education changes

February 14, 2013 

Perhaps it is not clear in Olympia today, but there is a fundamental difference between actually improving a thing and avoiding your responsibility to do that thing with endless plans to “reform” it.

For Democrats, there’s no better example of our ideals in practice than education – a public service that opens doors of opportunity for the next generation. In the Legislature, we have worked for decades to improve our schools or – to use the catch phrase – to reform education.

Just in the last few years Democrats passed:

 • An improved definition of basic education in Washington, including increased student learning hours in a year, all-day kindergarten for all and more programming for highly capable students.

 • A new accountability program for underachieving schools, which has outperformed improvement plans nationally.

 • A new performance evaluation program for teachers and principals alike.

 • A collaborative schools program that pairs struggling schools with colleges to implement research-driven education methods.

We have enacted sweeping education reforms, and Democratic governors signed them into law.

Let’s be clear: The next meaningful reform for Washington is paying for the innovative plans already passed into law. And that is what we are focused on: implementing, improving and funding the reforms that the Legislature has outlined.

In the McCleary decision, the Washington Supreme Court validated the reforms already in place as the correct path to success in education. And, as strongly as the court has validated our reform plan, it has been even stronger in emphasizing that the next common-sense step is to implement that plan with proper funding.

Democrats in the state Senate have introduced legislation that would move us down that path (Senate Bills 5570 and 5573), laying the groundwork for a transparent discussion about priorities, accountability and adequate funding. These bills would act on the recommendations of two task forces set up by the Legislature to tackle the funding challenge.

Unfortunately, members of the Republican majority in the Senate are not interested in even having a hearing on these bills. Instead, they have sought to avoid the funding challenge by creating a distraction. They label their distraction “education reform.”

An example: A Republican bill would give schools an A through F letter grade, just like school papers.

If this sounds like a remarkable step forward, we should point out that the only things new about it are the letters A, B, C, D and F. This grading system would be based on measures and outcomes that are already in place, built on an assessment index that a Democratic Legislature passed into law. The Republican novelty is to take that multilayered picture of a school and label it “C,” for example.

We would respectfully point out that simplicity is not a substitute for accuracy. That is why in Oklahoma the same letter-grading system was panned by researchers for being “neither clear nor comparable.”

Another Republican “reform” bill this session would hold back third-graders who fail to pass a reading test. In Ohio, they called this the “Reading Guarantee,” and it now threatens to flunk 10,000 8- and 9-year-olds, especially from poor or minority families.

In Olympia, we proposed an amendment that would provide resources for intensive reading interventions in kindergarten through third grade, but the Republicans rejected that approach. Instead, they are moving forward with a program that punishes struggling students based on a high stakes test for 9-year-olds.

Again, the talk is cheaper than following through. The truth is that delaying reforms we know will work to discuss ideas like changing the labels on our measurements is nonsense. It is like firefighters debating whether they should paint the truck a different color while the house burns behind them.

Democrats continue to support meaningful changes that will help students, but we are also ready for the next big reform – implementing the dramatic plans for improvement that are in place today.

The truck looks fine in red. Let’s put out the fire now.

State Sens. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island and Andy Billig of Spokane are Democratic members of the Senate Early Learning and K12 Education Committee.

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