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Originally published Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 4:06 PM

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Editorial: State Senate fails on teacher evaluations

The state Senate’s failure to improve teacher evaluation standards comes with professional and financial risks for Washington school districts.

Seattle Times Editorial

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HEAR that giant swirling sound emanating out of Olympia? That’s the sound of more than $40 million in federal education money being flushed away.

Prodded by the state teachers’ union, a majority in the state Senate voted down a bill before a key deadline Tuesday, which would have made a necessary change in law so the state could continue receiving federal money and the flexibility for districts to spend it to best serve students.

The defeated Senate Bill 5246 would have required statewide student tests to be included in teacher and principal evaluations.

The Legislature enacted stronger teacher reviews two years ago to include test scores as a factor. The flaw in that legislation was the qualifier that state test scores “can” be used in evaluations. Olympia just blinked again, and failed to ensure that “must” be used.

Without the change, the state would lose a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind regulations. Most of Washington’s schools would be declared “failing,” and those school districts would lose more than $40 million in Title I dollars for local successful programs to help low-income students. The money would be redirected to supplemental educational services — basically, private tutoring with no local accountability.

The defeated bill was not prescriptive. It did not say whether 1 percent or 100 percent of the evaluations should be factored into the evaluations. Teacher evaluations are a factor in teacher assignments and layoffs. Evaluations need a breadth of information to make them useful for the teachers as well.

For a state under the legal imperative of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling to maximize funding for K-12 education, more than $40 million is not an insignificant amount.

Many senators want to increase spending on education in this short supplemental budget session. Gov. Jay Inslee has called for $200 million in new spending. Letting this federal money go undermines the credibility of that request.

Some prominent Democrats suggest Washington’s congressional delegation can save Washington state from its own reticent Legislature. Inslee wants to talk to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and ask for flexibility. It’s unlikely the secretary could be persuaded.

The senior member of the delegation, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., apparently is not so sure. Her office said this week that while she will continue to advocate for the state’s waiver extension, the senator could not offer “any blanket assurances.”

A better idea is for legislative leaders to revisit this change themselves in the few weeks remaining in the session. If those efforts are not successful, the loss of control over those federal funds should not be blamed on Murray or the delegation.

Failure to endorse this change, which would not have started until fall 2015, creates expensive uncertainty. Districts that most need local options, and have the least alternatives, would pay the price. The Seattle School District stands to lose $2.8 million — the amount it received in the 2013-14 school year.

When Washington state loses its waiver, the state’s schools are deemed to be “failing” under federal law and those letters start arriving in the mailboxes of students’ parents, this is on those state senators who voted with the teachers’ union instead of with the students.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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