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Originally published Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 5:09 PM

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Look to Colorado for education-reform advice

Colorado is briskly reforming its public-education system. Washington state should take note.

Times editorial columnist

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The world is changing with no part of it more overdue than public education. Neuroscience assures us of the infinite capabilities of young minds. Technology broadens pathways to learning.

But the most frustrating thing is how long change takes: the glacial pace at which talking shifts to doing.

I met Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston a few weeks ago. The Denver Democrat was in Seattle to speak at a League of Education Voters breakfast.

Johnston is from a Western, progressive state similar to Washington. After all, both states just voted to legalize marijuana. He represents Northeast Denver, a corner of the city with public-school demographics similar to South Seattle and South King County.

He lays out a template for public schools that will sound familiar to local readers. The difference is Colorado did it. Washington is, so far, only talking, and talking, about doing it.

Colorado passed a “mutual consent” law in 2010, after a coalition of Democrats, civil-rights groups and business leaders successfully argued that principals should pick their teachers, not have teachers forced upon them.

Student achievement, including test scores, make up 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in Colorado. In Washington’s new evaluation system, districts still are hashing that out in union bargaining agreements. Automatic tenure is gone in Colorado’s K-12 system. Teachers can earn job security with three consecutive years of good evaluations.

State funding for Colorado’s K-12 system is projected to rise dramatically, accompanied by a proposed new formula that would tie funding directly to students. Colorado would become the second state — Hawaii was first — to adopt the “backpack” approach that would tie state funding more closely to students. If the kid transfers, the money follows right away.

Johnston’s proposed school-funding plan would require voters to approve a statewide initiative to pay for expanded early learning, full-day kindergarten and more resources for low-income students.

Colorado residents are hotly debating how the state should reconfigure local and state funding. One way could mean less money going to wealthier districts, but those districts might be allowed to tax themselves to make up the difference.

Washington began that conversation last fall — remember the so-called levy-swap debate — and quickly abandoned it when it became too controversial

I’m not saying Washington is an education backwater. But we sure spend a lot of time wringing our hands. (The biggest hazard for education reformers just might be chafed hands.)

The proper response is not legislative panic. The Legislature’s role developing thoughtful policy paves the way for work educators do on the ground. Lawmakers need to do the following:

• Pass Senate Bill 5237, which reflects the general agreement that third grade marks a milestone for reading. Schools and families ought to team up on academic supports, such as tutoring or summer school, for students not reading proficiently by third grade.

• Tackle school suspensions, expulsions and behavioral problems as a key to raising academic performance.

• Accept charter schools as another option in a transforming system. Colorado has had charters for nearly 20 years. Some are outperforming traditional public schools. But the best evidence I see is that achievement has gone up in the Denver Public Schools, for charters and traditional schools both.

Johnston is not easily dismissed as a meddler who has never seen the inside of a classroom. His teaching career began in the Mississippi Delta. He has a master’s degree in education. He was a principal at two alternative high schools and co-founded a high school that made state history when it became the first in Colorado to send 100 percent of its seniors to four-year colleges.

Listen to Johnston with an eye on the possibilities for Washington. His speech at the League of Education Voters breakfast is worthwhile listening via YouTube.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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