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Originally published April 26, 2014 at 4:03 PM | Page modified April 29, 2014 at 4:56 PM

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Editorial: State leaders should save $40 million federal education waiver

The U.S. Education Secretary ended the state’s waiver under No Child Left Behind. Legislators can pass a law in special session to keep districts in charge of about $40 million in federal funds.

Seattle Times Editorial


THE Obama administration rapped Washington’s knuckles Thursday by ending its waiver under the No Child Left Behind law. As a result, state schools will lose control of around $40 million a year in federal funds intended to help struggling students.

The punishment sends a strong message about the fallout when adults don’t keep children’s best interests in mind. As state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said: “I think the adults probably won this round and the kids lost.”

Though the Washington Education Association, the teachers union, is celebrating this as a victory, elected leaders still have a chance to take a stand for children.

Thursday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan notified Gov. Jay Inslee his department was making good on a threat it made in August: Unless Washington state required students’ scores on statewide tests to be used in teacher evaluations, the state would lose its waiver and flexibility over federal funds. Significantly, without the waiver, most of Washington’s schools would be considered “failing schools” under federal law.

The Legislature could have enacted a simple legislative proposal requiring the scores’ inclusion and without being prescriptive about how much they should count. The effort foundered under WEA pressure. At the time, many lawmakers speculated Secretary Duncan would relent and make an exception for Washington. Surely U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., could intervene. She tried.

Well, Washington certainly became an exception — with the embarrassing distinction as the first state in the nation to lose its waiver. This loss of flexibility is especially disappointing as state lawmakers try to figure out how to meet their education funding obligations under the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling.

Districts must cut programs for students needing the most academic assistance. And federal money may be used mostly to pay commercial tutors, such as Kumon or Sylvan Learning Centers, to help struggling students.

But it doesn’t have to come to that. In his letter, Duncan leaves that door wide open:

“Should Washington obtain the requisite authority to resolve its condition, I would be pleased to reconsider Washington’s request to implement ... flexibility at any time.”

In other words, “I’m waiting.”

Two options:

• Washington could follow Oregon’s lead. Just last week, Oregon appeared to save its waiver, ironing out an agreement likely to pass muster with Duncan. Leaders from Oregon’s Department of Education, state school administrators group and the teachers union announced they struck an agreement to include test scores in teacher evaluations. They will submit the proposal by May 1.

Think about it: the WEA could set aside its bellicosity on this issue and be a partner in preserving district flexibility. However, the union gave no hint of such inclination in its comment on Duncan’s decision.

• Gov. Inslee, who strongly supported legislative efforts to keep the waiver, could call a special session and bring lawmakers back to Olympia to vote on a remedy — perhaps the same one senators voted down under pressure from the WEA. The state House never voted on this issue.

What’s different now?

For one, Duncan called Washington’s bluff.

For another, the repercussions will start: Districts will start to cut programs that were making a difference. By September — in the middle of election season — parents of most Washington students will be reading attention-grabbing letters that their schools are considered failing. No doubt they will have lots of questions about their lawmakers’ inaction.

Elected leaders have a chance to solve this problem. They should think of their smallest constituents, not their loudest and most politically powerful.

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

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