Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Top Washington Education Stories to Watch in 2010 (A WEW Special Edition)

If we were to label the aughts, education wise, I think it would have to be the No Child Left Behind Decade. Education reform took on a tone we've not seen before with the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and that new-found emphasis on testing, gaps, and school-level accountability was certainly the defining story.

(Aside: We're sadly left to only imagine what a decade-end Bracey Report would have looked like. Dig him or dislike him, the guy was a hell of a writer.)
This decade for the schools is lining up to be every bit as breakneck as the last was, given that we're starting out with a Secretary of Education in Arne Duncan who has more authority than we've ever seen before and we have a financial crisis hovering over the state budget that has the potential to be absolutely transformative, but quite possibly not in a good way.

Here, then, are my top things to watch in the coming year. Come back next Christmas and give me a grade!

#10: Funding Administrative Fiddling While Rome Burns. I get that I'm just about the only person in the state whining about this, but I'll be damned if the principle isn't the most important thing. When we're talking about cutting kids health care and laying off teachers while AT THE SAME TIME funding internships for principals and leadership camps for superintendents, something has gone seriously wrong in our priorities. If you want to know why I'm so cynical about the Governor's budget boo-hooing, there it is in a nutshell.

#9: Election 2010. Come the end of the legislative session in March, this is where the action will be.

On the Federal level, Brian Baird stepping aside in the 3rd CD opens up a seat in the House of Representatives, and that has started a stampede. You've got Republican State Sen. Joe Zarelli thinking about it, along with Republican State Representative Richard Debolt and Democratic State Senator Craig Pridemore and a cast of at least 9 others.

It'll be really intersting to see how things shake out, particularly on the GOP side. If Debolt and Zarelli both decided to run (along with Republican State Representative Jaime Hererra, you could have a ton of open seats suddenly appear in Southwest Washington. Zarelli particularly has been the Republican voice on state budget issues for quite some time; losing him wouldn't necessarily be devastating (there's always a replacement to be found), but it would certainly leave a void until the next perosn came along.

Also at the state level you'll have every House seat and half of the Senate seats open this coming November. The general theme seems to be of a Republican resurgence and Democratic downswing, but with the Tea Party Movement saying some fairly provocative things about RINO Republicans, there's potential for some normally-staid primary campaigns to turn bloody--hell, it's already starting with Herrera.

#8: College Tuitions--Up! The United Faculty of Washington State run a great blog where they talk about higher education issues; one of the writers, Bill Lyne of Western Washington U, is about as well-informed on education issues as you'll ever hope to find, and a dynamic speaker to boot.

In this post they looked at how the Governor's budget would impact higher education. Put that side-by-each with what's going on in California where students are taking over buildings and forming torch-wielding mobs, which is only OK if Frankenstein's monster is on the loose.

So the trick is that, given the proper legislative authority, the colleges can raise tuition enough to ameliorate the impact of state budget cuts. That cost is then borne by the students, many of whom (particularly at the community college level) are struggling with the mortgage and unemployment problems that are effecting society writ large. Having permission to collect the money isn't the same as having the ability to collect the money, and that's what we're seeing in Cali.

#7: The WEA vs. The LEV: I'm not a fan of the League of Education Voters; as an organization, I think they're far more interested in change for change's sake than they are in actual school reform. The debate over HB2261 proved this to my satisfaction; some of their comments this past summer drive the point home even more clearly.

The two groups came together briefly to beat down Tim Eyman's most recent initiative, but I think that the changes required to qualify for the Race to the Top money are going to open a whole new can of worms. Throw the Washington State PTA, Stand for Children, the PSE, and all the other groups into the mix as well, and this'll be a Battle Royale.

#6: Financially Failing School Districts: One of the refrains oft-heard this past year was that there were 5 or 6 school district statewide in serious financial straits. If you believe Randy Dorn, that may only get worse. With pension costs set to spike and the future of levy equalization uncertain, I predict that this is the year that you'll see a school district--I'm guessing a mid-size one--drown in its own red ink. And that leads us nicely into.....

#5: School District Consolidation. When the Governor's budget came out I actually breathed a small sigh of relief, because school district consolidation wasn't nearly as promoted as it had been last year. Trick is, I was looking in the wrong place.

The place to look, oddly enough, is in the work of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), which has on its agenda for this year a "study of the relationship between the cost and size" of school districts around the state. On a per pupil basis, those kinds of evaluations never favor small schools; it's $60,000 a year to educate a kid in Benge, versus an average of $9,700 in districts like Seattle, Kent, Puyallup, and Spokane. I've got Republican legislators telling audiences that the purge is coming; what that will look like has yet to be determined.

#4: The Battle Over Levy Equalization. For the districts that I work with here in Eastern Washington, this is the #1 issue with a bullet. For my own local, it's about a $1.4 million dollar impact. Conceivably, that could be 20 teaching positions. 220 of Washington's 295 school districts receive levy equalization money, but the trouble is where those districts are--when the bulk of the state's legislators are in the Seattle metro area, and those districts don't need the LEA funds to get by, I'm not sure they "get it." I think that's why we sometimes see attitudes like this.

(More levy equalization talk here)

#3: Randy Dorn on Standards--Does He or Doesn't He? When Randy Dorn went to the State School Directors Association meeting last month and called for yet another delay in our math and science mandates, the press, parents, and politicos all took turns beating him like a rented mule. His proposal to the legislature sounds like it's dead on arrival, but the larger issue isn't going to go away: how can we demand that kids pass a test that is constantly changing, with standards that are as ephemeral as if we had written them with our finger in the sand at the seashore?

#2: The Quality Education Council, McAuliffe and Oemig, and HB2261. The QEC was born out of HB2261, which Senators McAuliffe and Oemig have been traveling the state relentlessly pimping for the past 5 months. The final report from the QEC is due in a couple of weeks, and then we'll see if it's worth anything more than Washington Learns or the Basic Ed Finance Task Force were.

The pro-reform crowd will always say that it's never a bad time to do the right thing, but at the end of the day there really isn't any money--if we were still doing priorities of government, could we really justify spending millions of dollars to reform a system that's being beaten senseless by budget cuts? Right now it feels like we're piling the QEC on top of the changes from the State Board of Education and the Race to the Top, and given all that it's no wonder that teachers feel like they're under siege.

#1: The Race to the Top. So, how far are we going to go for $150,000,000 and 30 pieces of silver?

In at least one respect Washington is well positioned to cash in on some of Obama's Dash for the Cash--data analysis--but pieces like authorizing charter schools, linking teacher evaluation to student test data, and merit pay are going to be far more problematic. Each of them is going to be its own giant legislative battle, and each is going to expose some fascinating divides within the Democratic party, the school advocacy community, and the legislature writ large.

This is going to be particularly interesting in the run-up to the 2010 election, because these are going to be the kind of votes that many legislators would have much rather taken last year, so they could put some distance between the debate and the upcoming campaign. That could be the poison pill that stalls many of these changes in their tracks, because rushing through a reform is a sure way to get the reform wrong.

Take merit pay. We have models across the nation for how merit pay is being done, but we also have models for how merit pay has fallen apart. The bottom line is that there is no national consensus on what merit pay for teachers should, could, or would look like, and the message that I tend to get from looking at what's been done is that it would be nigh-on impossible to create one system of merit pay that would work for every school in Washington.

Look at TRI Pay, particularly what Dan Grimm wrote in his minority report coming out of the Basic Ed Finance Task Force in 2008. It's perfectly fine to say that it creates an inequitable system, but I'll argue the point until I'm blue in the face that districts NEED that flexibility to meet their needs on the ground. Now expand that out to merit pay--is excellent teaching in Bellevue the same as excellent teaching in Benge? What about our Native American students--is the work that their teachers do fully comparible to the work of teachers in other districts? Or, the extreme example, our juvenile institutions--what would merit look like for them?

And that's only merit pay. Getting everything done that Race to the Top requires by March 11th, the end of the session, will require a ramrod that won't serve the system, the students, or the process. The predictable result is that certain groups will react as their conditioned response dictates, blaming the union and the Governor, while others will again be put on the defensive. Wash, rinse, repeat.

But that's not the bottom of the list....

#0: The State Budget Crisis and the Public Schools. It's #0, because we have $0. That's the problem in more ways than one.

I was the lead negotiator the last time our contract with my district was up, and there's an adage that goes like this: if you can't get money, get language. With the schools in line to potentially take a $400 million dollar hit, we're not going to get money. The trouble is the language we might get instead. I think that's a big part of the reason we got stuck with HB2261 last year--the legislature couldn't cough up any money, but they could deliver this 111-page behemoth that made an awful lot of promises about how we would raise and spend money in the future. You can also look at the QEC and see how some timelines are getting moved up; my suspicion is that's mainly to give the appearance of doing something, but that the flailing around to be seen could hurt our schools in the near term.

The budget woes tie everything else together. We're being told that we have to go after Race to the Top money because of the budget crisis. School districts are being pushed to the brink because of the budget crisis. HB2261 and the QEC gain new urgency because of the budget crisis. School district consolidation started getting a fresh look because of the budget crisis. Levy equalization is at risk because of the budget crisis.

By mid-March we'll have a better idea of where we're at, but the reverbations of the budget will echo for a long time to come.

Thanks for reading! Please come back as the year goes on for new editions of the Washington Education Week newsletter, as well as the other fun stuff that makes a blog a blog. Happy New Year!

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Blogger Dr Pezz said...

The QED held an initial vote on local bargaining and recommended against local bargaining by a 7-4 vote (Dorn and Oemig voted against). Granted, this is a preliminary vote, but it may be telling about a possible direction the QED may take.

I was at a Uniserv meeting and when Arizona lost local bargaining, we were told the state cut teacher salaries across the board by $5,000. If accurate, scary.

11:02 AM  

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