Washington State Struggling with Loss of Waiver, Funding

Washington State is in the midst of a political battle over education policy that is causing nine out of ten public schools in the state to remain on the failing list.

The State Legislature has refused to make student test scores a requirement for teacher evaluations, causing the state to hold schools to an outdated benchmark that is almost impossible to achieve, stating that by 2014 every student must be proficient in reading and math or be placed on the failing list.  Similar situations are occurring in California, Iowa, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming for this reason.

Schools on the failing list are required to set aside 20% of any federal funding it receives for private tutoring or to transport students to schools not currently on the list, depending on what parents want to do.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, signed into law by the George W. Bush administration, is responsible for the 100% requirement.  The law was once looked at as a way to hold schools accountable for the success of all students, especially low-income and minority students.  However, educators have increasingly pushed for revisions, and Congress has failed to change the law as lawmakers continue to argue over the role of the federal government in public schools.

Two years ago, the Obama administration administered waivers to 43 states in an effort to offer schools a way around the requirements, so long as they agreed to incorporate better academic standards such as Common Core, as well as policy additions like using student test scores in teacher performance ratings.  States that have refused to the latter were denied waivers.

Washington State had originally agreed to the requirements, but then decided to leave it up to each district to decide on whether or not to use test scores.  As a result, the United States Department of Education revoked the state’s waiver in April, which has ended up diverting $40 million in federal funding.

“We’re punishing schools and educators, and arguably kids, because state policy makers don’t want to do what the Education Department demands,” said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education policy group in Washington, D.C. “Talk about friendly fire.”

Meanwhile, Washington state Legislature is being ordered to increase their spending on public education by the Washington state Supreme Court to allow for each child to receive a basic education in accordance with a 2007 lawsuit.  While the Legislature is being held in contempt for not making enough of an effort on this front, any sanctions will not be issued until the close of the 2015 legislative session.

According to the ruling, the state has until 2018 to provide full funding for the public schools.  The total amount is expected to be between $3.5 billion and $7 billion for each two-year period between the ruling date of 2012 and the 2018 deadline.  The additional funding will be used for updating transportation, smaller class sizes, daily operating costs and needed supplies.

Currently in the state education advocates are pushing to limit class sizes.  While money from the McCleary decision would be used for this purpose, it is expected that to fully support the effort would cost an additional $2 billion per year to pay for the additional teachers and support staff.

Opponents believe there are more important issues to be spending that money on, and while research has proven that smaller class sizes are effective for the younger grades, there is no proof that it is helpful for middle or high school students.

At the same time, the State Board of Education is seeing a new chair and executive committee member.  Isabel Muñoz-Colón has been elected for the next two years.