Our Voice: State lawmakers gets second chance on teacher evaluation bill

March 1, 2014 

We're happy to see that Sharon Brown, freshman state senator from Kennewick, will get a chance to redeem herself on the issue of teacher evaluations when the issue comes up for another vote.

She came down on the wrong side last month, voting against a Senate bill that would have made it mandatory to include statewide student test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

Without the bill, schools in Washington stand to lose control of more than $44 million.

Brown said she consulted Tri-City educators in determining how to vote on the issue and found passionate opposition to any changes. Local schools are heavily invested in the existing Teacher/Principal Evaluation Pilot program, a collaborative effort to develop a fair system for evaluating educators. Administrators and teachers here don't want lawmakers to pull the rug out from their efforts.

But the pilot program operates under a 2010 bill that says student scores on statewide tests may be used in evaluating teachers. The federal government insists that language be changed from may to must.

"I believe in local control and am leery of federal mandates (or even federal money with strings attached) that takes decisions out of the hands of our local school boards, parents and teachers, Brown wrote in an email Thursday.

But the defeated bill didn't dictate how heavily the tests would count toward an evaluation, only that they be considered. That should be a low enough threshold to pass muster in even the most challenging school districts.

Lawmakers supporting the bill have a far better argument for it than whether it's fair to teachers. The penalty for not including statewide test scores in teacher evaluations is stiff. The state stands to lose its waiver from the rules of the No Child Left Behind law.

Without the waiver, most schools in Washington would be declared "failing," and as a result lose control of more than $44 million in Title I dollars for programs designed to help low-income students.

The money would be redirected to private tutoring and other educational services that are outside local control.

Is making teacher evaluations a little less fair in exchange for $44 million in federal money the right thing to do?

Absolutely.

Title I money is earmarked to benefit low-income kids who typically need the most help in school. Teachers can negotiate how much weight to give the tests during evaluations. Kids at risk of losing the extra help that federal money provides don't have a seat at the negotiating table.

The Pasco School District, with a high percentage of kids learning English and on free and reduced-cost lunches, stands to lose control more than $1.05 million in federal aid. Kennewick School District has $1.02 million at stake and Richland $265,990.

Gov. Jay Inslee met with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last weekend to talk about the waiver and teacher evaluations.

Duncan told the governor he wanted a change in Washington state law before he would grant the waiver.

Inslee said Tuesday that he has reached a deal with lawmakers from both parties to revise the bill in a way that will satisfy the federal government, The Associated Press reported.

The difference this week is that lawmakers now know that the federal government is going to extend the waiver if they change the law, Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor's office, told the AP.

The proposed language for the bill would include a provision that the change only goes into effect if the waiver is approved, she said.

That bill is Brown's chance to correct the mistake she made on the first vote. She said Thursday that she will approach the new legislation with an open mind.

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