Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rob McKenna, District Takeover, and the Perils of Mathematics

Crosscut published a piece today on the scant differences between Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee's education plans. The most interesting thing about it is the first paragraph:
One of Rob McKenna's bigger education reform proposals has not seen much press. That's a proposal to allow the governor or superintendent of public instruction to appoint replacements for an elected school board in a district with 10 percent or more failing schools. McKenna's proposal does not define what "failing school" means. In a phone interview a few weeks ago, the Republican gubernatorial candidate said that the definition of "failing" would be determined by criteria set by either the state legislature or the the superintendent of public instruction.
Thing is, the state has already gone a long ways towards defining what a failing school is through the creation and roll-out of the Washington Achievement Index, which I've mentioned in passing here on the blog before. It's the brainchild of WERA President (and former Gates Foundation/OSPI researcher) Pete Bylsma, and it very clearly rates every school in the state on a numerical scale. We have, now, a fully functional way of identifying those "failing" schools.

For those who get slightly turgid over spreadsheets (me and Ross Hunter, mainly) you can download the whole thing here, but a far better version for discussion purposes can be found over at the Washington Policy Center's education reform center, here.  Give it a look and try sorting the columns by "District Name" then "Ranking", and then let's take another look at what AG McKenna says in his education platform regarding failing schools, just to make sure that Crosscut didn't get it wrong:
"Change state law to allow elected school boards in school districts with ten percent or more failing schools to be replaced with a school board appointed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction or Governor."
Using that filter, then, of "ten percent or more", let's see which school boards would be out the door.

Aberdeen has nine schools, two of which are struggling.  That's pretty likely to be the case when one of the schools you serve is the Greys Harbor Juvenile Detention Facility.  Sorry, Aberdeen school board--you're replaced.

Anacortes has 7 schools, and their alternative high school is struggling. It's going to be a shame that the voters in the district lose their elected voice, but that'll teach them to have alternative programs for marginal kids.  So long, Anacortes school board.

Arlington!  9 schools, 1 struggling.  It doesn't seem exactly fair, but if you're a district of 10 schools or less and even one of them is failing, Rob McKenna would like to appoint your leadership from Olympia.  Arlington School Board, you are the weakest link.

And rounding out the A's, Auburn has 22 schools and only one struggling.  Congratulations, Auburn--you're under 10%.  The school board is saved!  Congratulations as well to Adna, Almira, and Asotin-Anatone, with a combined 5 schools between them and none failing.

In fact, if we use the Achievement Index as the filter, 90 different districts and programs would have their elected boards thrown out and replaced by Olympia.  Of those 90, 68 get above 10% "failing" because of a single failing school.  In some cases--Damman, Index, Keller, Wishram, and more--it's the only school in the entire district.  In other places, like West Valley of Spokane, there are an even 10 schools in the district and the only school that is failing is an alternative program.

Am I being unreasonable?  Typically, and probably, and that's why proposals similar to McKenna's don't ever really go anywhere, because there isn't much of a way to be fair about this.  I could make excuses for most of the 90 districts on that list--Rochester had a juvenile detention center, the School for the Deaf is a special program, etc.--but if you go into something like this on anything less than the strict math of it all you open yourself up to charges of racism.

Yes, racism.  On Christmas break I wrote about the persistently lowest achieving (PLA) school list that OSPI puts out, pointing out that 11 of the 57 schools on the list were majority or plurality Native American.  Some of the school districts that show up multiple times on the PLA list (notably Yakima and Seattle) aren't above the 10% failing schools line that would trigger a state intervention under the McKenna plan.

So consider the optics here--if the McKenna administration were to use the Achievement Index, he's going to have to sell to places like Oakesdale and Mount Pleasent that he and his Olympia cadre know more about how to run their local school than he does.  If he goes with the PLA list, he'll be sending teams to places like Wellpinit, Nespelem, and Inchelium to tell their school directors that they're fired and he will do better.  There is no way from a communication standpoint to make that look good, at all.

Think about what a program like that would mean through the lens of conservative values, as well.  This is classic "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help!" interference, directly opposite to what many believe regarding local control and local decision making.  To see a Republican candidate for Governor advocating for an Olympia takeover of anything is jarring; over something as local as our schools, especially so.  The genesis of this whole thing is the state intervention requirements that were in the Race to the Top grant application, but even then the review scores said that the intervention program we have now wasn't the problem, so why is McKenna pushing this particular button?

The way to make schools better is not to push out caring school board members who have volunteered their time in the first place.

Read more here, if any.