Politics & Government

Some lawmakers reverse stance on No Child Left Behind waiver bill

A bill to tie teacher evaluations to student scores on statewide tests couldn’t pass either chamber of the Legislature last year, despite warnings that the policy was needed to retain Washington’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

But Wednesday, the federally required teacher-evaluation changes cleared the Senate 26-23, after five Democrats and two Republicans switched their votes.

Democratic Sens. Annette Cleveland, David Frockt, Steve Hobbs, Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Jamie Pedersen voted in favor of Senate Bill 5748 Wednesday, reversing the ‘no’ votes they cast on a similar piece of legislation in 2014.

The only other Democrats who voted for the bill were freshman Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, and Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, the lone Democrat who supported last year’s proposed teacher-evaluation changes.

Meanwhile, Republicans with a change of heart were Sens. Don Benton and Doug Ericksen, who voted in favor of this year’s bill after helping defeat last year’s proposal 28-19.

The new measure would use statewide test results as a factor in teacher and principal evaluations starting in the 2017-18 school year. It states that local school districts and their teachers unions would be able to negotiate how the test scores are used and how much of a role they would play in evaluations.

The statewide teachers union has vocally opposed the measure, as it did year’s proposal.

So what changed in 2015?

Since last year’s vote, Washington became the first state in the nation to lose its waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, which meant the state’s school districts this year lost control over about $40 million in Title I grant money designed to help low-income students. Districts had to set aside the money to pay for after-school tutoring services, which often are provided by private companies rather than districts.

Several school district leaders — including Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno —have told lawmakers that setting aside that money has meant staffing reductions or program cuts in the past year.

Some lawmakers who changed their vote on the teacher-evaluation measure said they did so partly after hearing how loss of the waiver hurt districts.

“Last year, we didn’t know how that would play out — we didn’t know that Washington would be denied its waiver,” said Pedersen, D-Seattle. “We were in a very different position.”

Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said he was swayed to change his vote partly thanks to the amendment clarifying that districts and unions could bargain how much weight the test results would be given in evaluations — “whether it be 1 percent, 100 percent, or one-half a percent.”

“The great thing about this is it keeps it local ... and it keeps collective bargaining intact,” Hobbs said.

Under current state law, districts in Washington must consider student growth in evaluating the performance of teachers and principals, but the districts can draw that growth data from local or district-based tests.

However, the U.S. Department of Education said districts must use statewide standardized testing data when it is available, and revoked Washington’s waiver from No Child Left Behind last April due to that issue.

Frockt, D-Seattle, said the new collective bargaining language, along with pleas from local school officials, swayed his vote on this year’s teacher evaluation bill. So did the provisions that would delay the use of statewide testing data in evaluations until 2017-18.

“I feel like we have time to adjust,” Frockt said.

While the vote wasn’t strictly along party lines, most members of the Senate Democratic Caucus voted against the bill, while most members of the Republican-led Senate majority caucus voted for it.

Immediately after Wednesday’s vote, the state teachers union denounced the senators who voted in favor of the changes.

“Our kids deserve better,” said Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, in a statement posted on the website of the union’s political action committee. “We deserve better. Frankly, I’m ashamed of the senators who voted for this misguided policy. They sold out our students.”

Passed in 2002, No Child Left Behind set academic achievement standards that schools throughout the country have been unable to meet, including that 100 percent of students must pass state math and reading tests by 2014.

After Washington lost its waiver last year, 88 percent of schools in Washington failed to meet the standards set by the federal law. Districts were required to send notices to parents alerting them of their schools’ — and the districts’ — failing status.

The teacher evaluation bill may have a tough road ahead in the state House, where a similar bill didn’t receive a hearing this year.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, was noncommittal when asked about the legislation’s chances in that chamber.

“We’ve been focused on other issues here,” Chopp said, “but I’m sure we’ll talk about it.”