Sunday, January 10, 2010

Washington Education Week #6: The Calm Before the *hitstorm

The Washington State Legislature gets back to work tomorrow. It's expected to be a bipartisan affair where tough budget decisions are made in a spirit of teamwork and cooperation, where the needs of the individual are pushed aside so that the needs of the state can be fully shriven to the benefit of the citizens that make the Evergreen State great.

Nah, just kidding! Think crabs in a bucket, or out-of-control toddlers. Think out of control toddlers in a bucket with crabs. That's actually probably pretty close to the reality.

Item #1: School District Consolidation and Levy Equalization. It's looking like Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia is the guy who's going to be the grinch that finally brings this conversation to the forefront. The money quote:
"It's a terribly hot issue. But I don't think we can justify having 295 school districts," Hunt said. "If you want to save money, I think this is one way to do it. It sets up a commission."
Rep. Hunt's proposal to get it done is HB2616, which would establish a commission to look at cutting the number of school districts in the state from the current 295 down to 150. Looking it over I like how he's written it--there's a lot of public involvement, and the bill just commits to the conversation, not the eradication of school districts. Whenever it comes up before the House Education Committee (and given that Rep. Dave Quall, the committee chair, is a co-sponsor, you can bet that it will) I'll have to try to make the trip over and watch the proceedings.

Another piece to keep an eye on is the School District Cost and Size Study that the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) has started work on this year. Their final report is due in either May or June, which means that this is an effort that could really work hand-in-glove with what Rep. Hunt is proposing.

The practical impact, then, is that Eastern Washington newspapers like the Yakima Herald-Republic can host superintendents and write angry editorials until they're blue in the face, but if small school advocates aren't willing to look at every cost--including the cost of their very existence--then they're ceding the moral high ground to folks like Governor Gregoire who can now go out and say "Look, I wanted to save levy equalization, but we can't poor more money into those districts without knowing that it's worth it, yadda yadda I hate this budget."

Item #2: If the State Doesn't Want to Raise Tuition, Let the Colleges Do It To Themselves. An interesting idea wandering around Olympia is to allow the University of Washington the power to set its own tuition prices. It's come up before and never really gone anywhere, but maybe this is the right economic climate for something to happen.

Item #3: Things That Only the Shadow Knows. On one hand, you've got budget director Victor Moore saying that we can't change union contracts.

On the other, you've got Amber Gunn of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation with the contract language; her reading is that the state can re-open should revenues decreased.

What's the education angle? Idaho, where school districts are declaring fiscal emergencies and reopening their teacher's contracts. Numerous small districts here in my area have given back pay and benefits, and as my local president I might end up leading my people that way as well.

You might be surprised at how many teaching contracts have language related to financial conditions. An example:

The following instructional load standards are established except for traditional large group instruction classes, such as music, K-6 physical education, team teaching and special education programs for which state standards are prescribed, and except when the District because of financial crisis (such as levy failure) has significantly less money for the instructional programs than it traditionally has.
The trick is that these things have to be collectively bargained, but that is also as it should be. Some districts are overstaffed at the administrator level, and demanding that the cuts be applied to the classified, certificated, and administrative levels is fair.

Item #4: The State Board of Education and the New Accountability Plan. This is one of those stories that I've been wanting to spend more time on. With the Bylsma Plan set to come on line soon and the Board of Education getting ready to push through legislation, this'll be something to keep an eye on. Edie Harding, the executive director of the SBE, says that it's not a state takeover. Edie Harding is a damned liar.

The trick is, like with everything going on in the state right now, there is no money. It's a happy conceit that you can make extremely troubled systems better with only existing resources, but anyone who has worked with struggling kids knows that is not true. The money quote from the article:
“Some of the lowest 5 percent have made attempts to improve and have not been successful,” said board member Kristina Mayer, an educational consultant from Port Townsend.

She said some districts have not chosen to make changes, so the state board is acting on behalf of the children in those schools.
If it sounds outrageous, it probably is. C'mon, Ms. Mayer--if there really are districts that have chosen to ignore the needs of their kids, name them.

If you want a hint of where things could go, check out the EFF's School Rankings and go to the bottom of any one of the lists, like I did with elementary schools. This isn't going to be easy.

Bits and pieces:

  • No Child Left Behind had a birthday last week. The CW is that reauthorizing the ESEA with a new name will be a high priority this year so that the DC pols have something to hang their hat on as they gear up for the mid-term elections.

  • Calculated Risk says that the reason the unemployment rate is holding steady is because a lot of people are just dropping out of the job hunt and not trying any more. Similarly, the Huffington Post says that 1-in-5 working age men is unemployed. That's scary.

  • WEA President Mary Lindquist on school funding in Washington State.

  • Offered without comment: the League of Education Voters is very proud of their recent appearance on Fox News.

  • A group called MomRising is deliving brown-bag lunches to the legislators on Monday, encouraging them to work hard on the needs of kids. This is much better than my "A Flaming Bag of Doody on Their Doorsteps" initiative.

  • I still haven't seen a good answer to the concern that privatizing the liquor stores would only make our short-term economic problem worse.

  • The Washington Budget and Policy Center on what the Governor's proposal could mean for the schools and colleges.

This week in the Legislature:

Tuesday, January 12th:
House Education Appropriations Committee, 8:30.
House Education Committee, 10:00.
House Higher Education Committee, 10:00.
Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development, 10:00.

Wednesday, January 13th:
Senate K-12 Education and Early Learning Committee, 8:00.
House Education Committee, 1:30.
House Higher Education Committee, 1:30.
Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development, 3:30.
House Education Appropriations Committee, 6:00.

Thursday, January 14th:
House Early Learning, 8:00.
Senate K-12 Education and Early Learning Committee, 10:00.
House Education Appropriations, 1:30.

Friday, January 15th:
House Education Committee, 8:00.
House Higher Education Committee, 8:00.
House Early Learning, 1:30.
Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development, 1:30.

Next time: we'll look at the Governor's State of the State address, I'll have finally digested the report coming out of the QEC, and the first 7 days of the legislature. Salud!

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