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That educators now must send out a million letters to families here telling them that all of the state’s K-12 schools are failing has got to be the lowest point yet in the drive to reform public education.

It’s definitely the most absurd point. But maybe it’s also a turning point.

Under the folly of the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools will be judged failing unless 100 percent of students have passed state reading and math tests. That level of perfection is as rare with kids as with adults, so it effectively means all our schools are failing.

Trying to turn an impossible standard into a workable federal mandate is so predictably ridiculous it got mocked on “South Park,” the cartoon show. In an episode called “1%,” the show’s tubby anti-hero, Eric Cartman, fails the presidential fitness test, causing his entire school to fall under a government-imposed gym regimen. Of course the other kids find out he’s the source of their misery. Cruelty and hilarity ensues.

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That the hallmark federal schools policy can be reduced to grist for South Park about says it all.

“Because Congress can’t agree about how to fix this failed policy, our kids are once again caught in a system of requirements that fall short of supporting real learning.”

That’s from the draft letter our state recommends principals send out to parents in the next few weeks, informing us that our schools are being stamped with the federal seal of lameness. How are you supposed to react, as a parent, upon receiving such a letter?

Many will ignore it (though at some schools they’ll be offering free private tutoring, so take advantage of that). Others may blame the state for not going along with a federal requirement to link test scores to teacher evaluations. But others may decide they’ve had enough of this federal “testocracy” once and for all.

“This is a big moment in the nation’s history,” lefty state legislator Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, predicted recently. “Our state is embracing our constitutional 10th Amendment guarantee to administer our state’s education system. I strongly encourage federal officials to get back to empowering the states instead of coercing them.”

Garfield High School history teacher Jesse Hagopian was blunter: “(Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan has labeled my school — and every school in Washington State — a failure. Cue the revolt.”

It’s not often you hear liberals invoking states’ rights and the 10th Amendment. For years that has been the turf of fringe conservatives, known as “Tenthers.” But lately no issue brings far left and right into one messy coalition of the aggrieved like the feds’ ruling of the schools.

I don’t know how far any “revolt” might go. Calls to abolish the U.S. Department of Education remain mostly a right-wing thing. But it’s not hard to imagine some principals and teachers refusing these latest federal orders to send out the failing-school letters (on the grounds their particular schools aren’t failing). They could become the educational equivalent of those Nevada ranchers resisting federal grazing laws.

When I was a reporter covering Congress in the 1990s, one of our U.S. senators, Slade Gorton, proposed taking about half the money that goes to the Department of Education and just sending it to the states as block grants, to be used as they see fit. He called it a “radical” way of addressing this same struggle with federal control we’re having now, while also supporting local schools with money.

His idea briefly took off, passing the Senate, but Democrats feared it was a step toward killing federal school aid altogether. President Clinton threatened to veto Gorton’s bill, so that was the end of that.

A few years later, new President George W. Bush teamed up with Sen. Ted Kennedy to massively expand the feds’ reach into education policy, passing No Child Left Behind. It did some good, especially as a national rallying call. But now it’s regarded by almost everyone as broken, with Congress too dysfunctional to fix it.

Because of it, the education system in this state is about to be forced to re-enact a South Park episode.

I’m no Tenther. But maybe Slade Gorton was onto something.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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