OLYMPIA, Feb. 21.—Shock is spreading statewide following a stunning Tuesday-evening vote in the state Senate that killed a teacher-evaluation bill, a demonstration of the power of the state teachers’ union that will cost school districts some $40 million and could mean defeat for school levies across Washington.
It was one of the strangest votes in recent memory, and one that surely will be counted as one of the signature events of the 2014 session – a profile in Jell-O. Senate Democrats voted en masse against a bill they had written themselves, after hard lobbying from the Washington Education Association. The 28-19 vote makes it likely that the U.S. Department of Education will yank at least $38 million that currently goes to the neediest school districts in the state. It also means that virtually every parent of a school-age child in the state of Washington can expect to get an official letter declaring that his or her school is “failing” – a nasty stigma that would mean big trouble for school districts when it comes time to vote on school tax levies and bonds.
The proposal was a modest one. Senate Bill 5246 would have required districts to consider standardized student tests when conducting teacher evaluations, something that is now optional and which many do already. Yet it is one of those issues that crosses the trip-wires for the Washington Education Association, the union that represents 83,000 teachers statewide. What brings greatest dismay to business-community interests, education reformers and spokesmen for minority groups is that Senate Democrats appeared to be in strong support of the bill right up to the moment the union mounted a full-court lobbying press. Seldom has such a reversal been witnessed in the Washington Legislature. Indeed, red-faced Democratic communications staffers were forced to act quickly Thursday morning when it was discovered that their official website still contained a press release announcing support for the measure. The bill’s language had been authored by Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, who announced on the Senate floor Tuesday evening that she had seen the error of her ways and now opposed her own bill.
“You know, I think the most disturbing thing to me about that vote, after it occurred, was when members of the Democratic Caucus were on the floor high-fiving each other,” said state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, whose local school districts can expect to lose $3.1 million in federal funds. “I felt sick to my stomach. Letting that money go was just a smack in the face to those kids who without it are going to be hurt.”
Now business community and education-reform groups are pulling out the stops in an effort to revive the measure. They have just 20 days to do it – the current session is set to end March 13. But given the odd spectacle on the Senate floor Tuesday evening, and the fact that the issue has not gotten a hearing in the Democrat-controlled House, where the teachers’ union holds considerable sway, it seems WEA may already have won this one. While the union celebrates the defeat of the measure, others are aghast. “People wonder – can it be revived?” says Steve Mullin, president and CEO of the Washington Roundtable, the organization that represents the state’s largest businesses. “The implications of not doing it are just too overwhelming. It just seems hard to believe that they are not going to figure out how to get this done.”
A Curious Vote
The vote on the Senate floor Tuesday evening was one of the strangest scenes in recent memory. By itself the 28-19 vote was a legislative oddity, for votes are seldom taken in the House and Senate unless support is assured in advance. But it was the last possible moment a vote could be taken, at least under the rules the Senate has adopted; Senate leaders have decided that the school measure is not necessary to implement the budget, and thus the vote had to come before the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline for consideration of policy bills. If the votes hadn’t been counted, it didn’t matter — it was the last chance.
As always in a controversial vote, there were complicating political factors. A few Republicans voted against the measure — some called it an issue of local control, others hinted darkly of a protest against Majority Caucus leadership that left them seething after an earlier vote on a bill providing college financial aid for the children of illegal immigrants. On the Democratic side of the aisle, members who might not have been big fans of the teachers’ union acknowledged they were still irritated by a decision early in session by the Majority Caucus to strip Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, of a full chairmanship of the Senate Financial Institutions, Housing and Insurance Committee. Also complicating the story is the fact that the bill itself was sponsored by Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.
But leave that aside. What happened is actually pretty simple. The largely-Republican Majority Coalition Caucus backed the bill, but it needed Democratic votes to put it over. After a week of hardball lobbying by the teachers union, it appeared support was faltering. So to make the Democrats an offer they couldn’t refuse, the Majority Coalition ditched everything it had been considering that might have made teacher evaluations tougher. Instead, Litzow offered an amendment on the floor and replaced his bill with language from McAuliffe’s measure. So essentially the bill changed a single word in state law – instead of saying school districts “can” consider standardized tests, it said they “must.” And yet the Democrats said no – to their own bill.
An Astounding Reversal
All Democrats save one, Mark Mullet of Issaquah, voted against the measure. Seven Republicans joined them. It would have taken six or seven Democratic votes to put it over, says Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville – there might have been a couple of members on his side that could have been persuaded to change their votes if the count had been close. The big thing, he says, is that since the bill was one the Democrats had written in the first place, you might have thought at least a handful of them would vote for it.
You also might have gotten that idea from everything Senate Democrats said and did up until a week ago. One clip that has been making the rounds comes from an interview McAuliffe offered to Seattle’s KIRO-TV on Dec. 4. The question: “Is there any other way to move forward?” McAuliffe responded, “No, there is not.” On the floor of the Senate, she offered a decidedly odd explanation for her change of heart. She said she never actually intended for the bill to pass. “Many times we legislators introduce legislation to hear testimony regarding that legislation. I heard testimony over the last few months – I heard from my neighbors around the state that this is not a good thing, to use state tests to measure student growth.”
Was it really the testimony? It might be noted that after the Senate ed committee finished its hearings on the issue last month, McAuliffe was still in favor of her bill. After the hearings had taken place and it came time for the committee to take a vote on Jan. 25, McAuliffe continued to argue her version made more sense than the tougher bill favored by the Majority Coalition Caucus. Her bill went no further than it had to, she said, requiring standardized tests to be considered in teacher evaluations, yet it did not stipulate how much weight they had to be given. In an appearance on TVW’s Inside Olympia program Jan. 23, McAuliffe explained that her version of the bill “did exactly what we need to do to comply with the federal-government Department of Education demand that we use state test scores in reading and language arts.” The idea that testimony changed anyone’s hearts and minds is absurd, Litzow says. When the union began lobbying, the Democrats froze up. “This was not a political issue, but they made it one,” he fumes. “They decided that at the expense of the kids they were going to show unity in their caucus.”
Big Consequences Statewide
The teachers’ union has long opposed programs that link standardized test scores to school funding and teacher performance assessments. It maintains the results vary widely, they don’t reflect student learning, and they fail to account for the fact that students are taught by different teachers from one year to the next. Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, notes that Washington lawmakers passed a teacher-evaluation program in 2010 and extensively refined it two years later; it is now being phased in statewide. Forcing an additional change will “undercut the collaborative work school districts already are doing to implement the new teacher and principal evaluation system. That’s not in the best interest of our students.”
And there is another big concern that has been sounded in legislative hearings – big changes in curriculum are coming over the next few years with the rollout of new common-core standards, and test scores are expected to drop. Wood correctly observes that even if school districts themselves lose federal funding, the money still would be spent on children in the state of Washington.
Yet the failure of the bill is shaping up as a disaster for school districts across the state that currently receive and spend that money – particularly those with high populations of minority students. The U.S. Department of Education has notified seven states, including Washington, that it will revoke “waivers” from the federal No Child Left Behind Act if they do not make standardized tests a mandatory element in teacher evaluations. Democrats here appear to be pinning hopes on U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, presuming they will be able to change federal law in short order. But that seems a bit unlikely – a rewrite to the federal law has been stalled since 2007. This week federal regulators notified two states, Arkansas and Utah, that their requests for delays have been denied.
If the state balks at including standardized testing, districts that get Title 1 money from the federal government would suddenly fall under new requirements. Twenty percent of that money would be sequestered. Parents would get letters declaring that their schools are failing, and they would be allowed to send their children to non-failing schools or tutoring programs; that Title 1 money would be earmarked to pay for their transportation and education costs. The thing is, under federal definitions, every school in the state, save an elementary school in the Edmonds School District, would be declared to be a failing school – so there are no non-failing public schools to which students might be sent. And the likely uproar from parents is something that causes school officials to sweat. “We have lots of districts that are going out for levies, they’re going out for bonds,” Marie Sullivan of the Washington State School Directors Association said last month at a Senate hearing. “We can’t afford to have the public thinking that we are failing our students.”
Programs Would be Canceled
Meanwhile, school districts would have to cancel programs that are funded by those federal dollars. The $38 million estimate comes from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction; education-reform groups have made their own calculation and put the potential loss at $44 million. Carla Santorno, superintendent of the Tacoma Public Schools, said that if the district loses a projected $2 million a year in federal funding, the district will have to close six preschools and reduce graduation-support, extended-learning and teacher-coaching programs. The Seattle School District, the biggest casualty, would lose $2.8 million. What would happen, said Michael Stone, the district’s learning assistance program supervisor, is that the district would revert to the situation that existed before the state obtained its waiver in 2007. Perhaps 1,000 students would enroll in tutoring programs offered by third-party providers with little oversight from the district. School officials say results were spotty when that was done before, “but the biggest impact would just be the dollars we are losing.”
Every district has something to lose; the Spokane School District also would lose $2 million, and there are 10 districts that lose $1 million or more. And because the Title 1 money is distributed according to need the elimination of the waiver will have a disproportionate impact on Eastern Washington districts with high percentages of Latino children. The Yakima School District is the fifth-biggest loser in the state, at $1.5 million; other districts that rank high on the list are located in the Central Washington farming regions that are heavily dependent on migrant labor. This is the very population lawmakers attempted to boost this session by passing what they eventually called the Real Hope Act – a measure that for the first time will provide state college financial aid to the children of illegal immigrants. “It seems like our unions have a lot more influence than we were hoping, and there are a lot of conservatives who just don’t want to take money that comes from the federal government,” said Mike Sotelo, co-founder of the Association of Washington Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. “It is unfortunate if you look at the areas where the funding impacts — it is going to impact our communities of color more than any other place. Take a look — Wapato, Pasco, Yakima — that is where they could really use the money and it is really going to hurt them.”
It is perhaps the biggest irony of this year’s session – just as lawmakers were passing the immigrant college financial-aid bill in the House Tuesday night, lawmakers were defeating the teacher-evaluation bill in the Senate – a rather mixed message, to be sure.