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Originally published July 15, 2013 at 4:36 PM | Page modified July 15, 2013 at 6:02 PM

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Guest: Education reforms for state students blocked by WEA

Although education funding will reach an all-time high in Washington state, important reforms were left on the table, writes guest columnist Liv Finne.

Special to The Times

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DURING the 2013 legislative session that just concluded, lawmakers passed a budget that will direct an additional $1 billion to the public schools, raising total school funding to $15.2 billion in biennial operating spending. That’s an 11 percent increase compared to the last budget.

Yet reforms to improve how the money is spent were blocked by the state’s powerful public-sector union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), and its political allies in the Legislature.

The new budget will increase state funding by about $1,000 per student, to an all-time high of $11,300 per student. But only about 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom, and restrictive seniority policies prevent students from learning from the best teachers.

A little context is first necessary. Last year, 23,000 Washington students, or 31 percent of the total, failed to pass the state’s third-grade reading test. And 26,000 students, or 34 percent, failed to pass the third-grade math test.

One-third of Washington’s schools rank as only “Fair” or “Struggling,” the lowest two categories on the State Board of Education’s School Achievement Index. These and other dismal results led the state Supreme Court to rule in the McCleary decision that “Fundamental reforms are needed for Washington to meet its constitutional obligation to its students. Pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed.”

Longstanding research confirms what most parents already know: The most important factor in whether students are learning is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

Studies show that high-performing schools provide an effective and knowledgeable teacher in every classroom, supported by a strong principal who insists on high academic standards for students. In contrast, reducing class sizes has been shown to be much less effective.

During the session, bold education reformers in the Senate, led by Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, and Sens. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, and Andy Hill, R-Redmond, offered bills that would benefit students.

Their proposals would have allowed school principals to hire the best teachers and end the practice of endlessly transferring bad teachers from one school to another in the infamously bureaucratic “dance of the lemons.” They wanted to give schools A–F letter grades so parents could easily understand how well their local school are performing.

The recommended reforms would have ended the social promotion of students who cannot read at grade level by third grade. Changes would also have directed that future compensation adjustments for teachers, beyond an adjustment for inflation, be provided in the form of professional training in methods that actually work at teaching underachieving students how to read, write, add, subtract, multiply and divide.

All these reforms were supported in the Senate but were blocked by Democratic leaders in the House. Supported by the powerful WEA teachers union, these lawmakers are strong defenders of the educational status quo, fearing policy changes that may threaten the position of adults in the system.

The WEA is also working to cut education services for children. Many school districts, at the request of WEA representatives, are seeking to close school doors at noon Wednesdays or Fridays. While the cuts would certainly reduce classroom work hours for adults, they would deprive students of important instructional hours. In addition, last week the WEA union filed a frivolous lawsuit in an attempt to deny students access to charter schools.

In many states, like Wisconsin, Indiana and Florida, lawmakers are improving public education by giving parents more choice in selecting the school that works best for their children. Similarly, Washington voters enacted the new charter-school law to provide school choice for parents in a few districts across the state.

Given the record of the just-ended legislative session, however, it is clear reforms that give most Washington parents a greater voice in their children’s education will have to wait for another day.

Liv Finne is education director for the Washington Policy Center.

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