The ground has shifted on education issues for the Washington Legislature, thanks to a recent state Supreme Court ruling and voters’ embrace of charter schools.
Legislative leadership should respect the imperatives for change by rethinking their education committees and who chairs them.
In a broad indictment of the Legislature’s past approach to education, the high court ruled in McCleary v. State that the state had neglected K-12 funding, forcing school districts to ask constituents to pay increasingly onerous tax levies to fund more of basic education.
Some lawmakers interpret the ruling as requiring an additional $1 billion annually for the K-12 system. New money will be needed, but the economy’s struggles and, more importantly, common sense demand that legislators dig into the system for reforms — for example, more professional training — to boost effectiveness of this state investment.
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And lawmakers must not squander the opportunity to move beyond the outdated model of focusing solely on K-12 education to an approach that better funds education for students ages 3-23. Early-learning programs contribute to success in elementary school. A successful K-12 experience points qualified students to higher-education, which in turn sends graduates into the economy.
A $900 million deficit looms in the next two-year budget as lawmakers prepare to convene in January. The high court, which retained jurisdiction in McCleary, set nonnegotiable deadlines for progress, underscoring the urgency.
That is why the decisions legislative caucuses make in the coming days about committee organization is so important. The state needs open-minded, consensus-building leaders to navigate this difficult path. Democrats are firmly in control of the House and barely retained control of the Senate.
Senate Education Chair Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, and House Education Chair Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, were obstacles to key reforms in the last session. Each used their prerogative last session to weaken or kill promising education reforms.
Tomiko Santos routinely blocked action on teacher-evaluation and charter-school bills, among other reforms. McAuliffe blocked popular reforms prompting a bipartisan protest that ground all action to a halt.
Their frustrated and determined colleagues, working with the support of leaders in their respective houses, rolled them to push forward meaningful reform on teacher evaluations that was signed into law.
After both committee chairwomen blocked charter-school bills, voters approved Initiative 1240, which will bring charter schools to our state.
Even when the two lawmakers chose to lead on education, it was in the wrong direction. For example, they backed failed bills lowering graduation requirements despite a growing public consensus requirements should be increased.
McAuliffe’s performance drew a challenger in a race that attracted more than a half-million dollars in independent campaign donations. The five-term incumbent won comfortably. Tomiko Santos drew no opponent.
The education committees must function without the drag of recalcitrant leaders.
McAuliffe and Tomiko Santos have been passed up by the circumstances of the McCleary decision and voters’ embrace of charter schools — and the will of their colleagues who have been successful in working around them. Expect more of that if legislative leaders keep them in their seats.
There is no time to waste.