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Originally published Saturday, January 24, 2015 at 4:03 PM

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Editorial: Washington students need better laws at federal and state level

Changes state and federal laws in the next year could make a big difference for Washington’s schools.


Seattle Times Editorial

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DYSFUNCTION at the state and federal levels are not serving Washington’s students.

The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is a bad piece of legislation that needs revising — and now Washington’s own U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has stepped up to take a lead role in updating a bill that has languished before a do-nothing Congress. Though the Democrat is now in the U.S. Senate minority, her demonstrated success working across the aisle, such as on the federal budget last year, bodes well for her efforts.

In 2014, state senators from both parties — and under pressure from the state teachers union — used their disdain for the federal law to make a point and rejected a change in state law that would have required test scores to be considered in teacher evaluations. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had warned that, without that change, Washington would lose its waiver, which allowed the state protection from some of NCLB’s negative consequences. Consequently, school districts lost control over about $40 million in federal funds to help students who are most at-risk academically.

At the time, state Senate Democrats had hoped their U.S. senator could talk Duncan down from his threat. Murray tried but to no avail.

“I spent a great deal of time on the phone last year trying to get Arne Duncan to reissue a waiver for our state,” Murray recalled on a recent visit to Seattle’s Madrona Elementary. “He got into a battle with our state Legislature.”

Duncan stripped the waiver, meaning most schools were deemed “failing” under NCLB. School districts had to cancel some programs or delay plans to expand others. Although an increase in some state funding prevented some cuts, the uncertainty was disruptive. A few months in the academic life of a 7-year-old struggling to learn how to read is not something lawmakers should trifle with.

While Murray works on overhauling the federal NCLB law, state lawmakers should take a pragmatic tack to restore school districts’ control over the federal money that they lost. Enact a law that requires schools to include student test scores in teacher evaluations.

State Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who chairs the state Senate Education Committee, plans to reintroduce legislation to change the state law.

Murray, who recently became the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is pushing Congress to finally agree on how to reform NCLB. Congress has not reauthorized the law since 2007, which means it remains in effect even though educators and lawmakers widely believe it does not work.

During her visit at Madrona Elementary, Murray spoke about the need for education reform. One of NCLB’s biggest flaws, she said, is that it imposed high standards without providing resources to meet those requirements.

As far as testing, she views it as a tool to hold schools accountable for taxpayer dollars and to monitor student progress.

“The most important thing we can get out of assessment is knowing where our young students are,” Murray said. “How we use that information to make sure that they achieve and get what they need — should be the goal of assessments.”

Washington remains the only state in the country to have lost its waiver and control of some federal funds. The education department also revoked Oklahoma’s waiver, but that state regained it after meeting requirements.

Murray says state lawmakers will have to decide whether to get the waiver back.

In the meantime, both federal and state lawmakers should leave political divisions aside and do what’s best for students.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).



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