OLYMPIA, Feb. 4.—A decision by a Democratic chairwoman to kill a pair of high-profile education bills has triggered an all-but-unheard-of standoff in a Senate committee and a backroom blowup among the Senate Democrats.
Senate education chairwoman Rosemary McAuliffe says she isn’t going to allow a vote on a pair of K-12 reform bills that is backed by a broad coalition of business and education advocacy groups.
And so a majority of senators on the committee says it won’t vote on anything else.
The impasse shut down the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, prompted Gov. Christine Gregoire to try to broker a compromise, and brought Senate Democrats to a boil during a closed-door session Friday.
At the meeting, which was off-limits to reporters, angry Democrats, led by state Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina and moderate “Roadkillers,” suggested they might even resort to a procedural motion, members reported later. It is the kind of threat that causes jaws to drop at the statehouse and makes the Capitol shake, for it signals a breakdown of control and a breach of traditional lines of authority.
What it means is that there are enough Democrats who are willing to vote with Republicans to yank the charter-school and teacher-evaluation bills out of the committee and force a vote on the Senate floor. Whether they will do so is another matter.
But it signals the first major break among the Senate Democrats this year, just as happened on unemployment and workers’ compensation bills last session. And it shows that the moderate Ds in the middle hold all the cards once again.
Challenge to Union Power
“We want to make sure we’re not just mouthing the word ‘reform,’ and that we’re actually doing something to enact real reforms to the educational system,” said Tom, sponsor of the two bills in the Senate. He cited the state’s dismal performance in a recent federal contest for education funding: “When we finish 32nd out of 36 states in a ‘Race to the Top’ competition sponsored by a Democratic administration, clearly we’re not in the forefront of education reform.”
The dispute concerns bills that were introduced in the House and Senate this session with hoopla and high hopes by a coalition of business and education groups that are decidedly at odds with the education establishment. SB 6202 and HB 2428 would make Washington the 42nd state to allow charter schools, allowing public funds to flow to privately operated schools that operate outside the existing K-12 system. SB 6203 and HB 2427 would add training programs for teachers and principals to an evaluation program approved by the Legislature last year and which is set to launch in the 2013-14 school year.
The bills landed with a thud in the House and Senate education committees, where the Washington Education Association and school-district lobbying organizations carry considerable weight. The usual opposition was out in force against the charter-school proposal, sounding arguments that have become familiar during 20 years of debate. Opponents say charter schools would draw money from failing schools in the existing system; supporters point out that they are getting money and failing anyway. Main argument against the teacher-evaluation proposal is that it’s no time to change course.
And the result? No vote in either committee.
That’s where things started getting interesting.
Chaos in Senate Committee
McAuliffe and Sharon Tomiko Santos in the House used the power of their chairmanships to kill the bills, refusing to permit votes despite apparent support from a majority of committee members. This week the House and Senate faced a deadline for the passage of bills by policy committees. That was supposed to be the end of them.
But in the Senate committee, two Democrats – Tom and Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said they would stand with Republicans and they refused to vote on anything else until the charter-school measure came up for a vote.
That meant a majority of the committee was standing against the chair.
Instead, McAuliffe canceled the committee’s Thursday meeting. That was the final meeting before the deadline. And so everything else before the committee died as well, including a somewhat weaker teacher-evaluation bill favored by the governor.
The impasse in the committee continues. Not a single meeting has been scheduled next week.
The breakdown brought the governor to the Senate chamber Friday, where she met with McAuliffe and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane and tried to figure out some way to save her own bill. Nothing happened.
But the real battle, members said, came when the doors were closed on the Senate Democratic Caucus meeting room and the argument began.
The moderate Democrats, who call themselves the “Roadkill Caucus,” stood with Tom and demanded action on the bills. The Roadkillers have been circulating a list of reforms they are demanding this year in return for their votes on the budget, though it has not been released publicly. The charter school and teacher-evaluation bills are on it.
Said state Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, a prominent member of the Roadkill faction, “It was very apparent that there are a number of people who believe that it is time for us to make some very substantial changes. I think what everyone saw was the level of seriousness that our members in our caucus wants to move forward with this bill. And we are very serious. It is going to be one of our top priorities this year.”
If the Senate has the guts to take on gay marriage, he said, surely it can deal with charter schools.
“We have already taken on one controversy this session,” he said. “My message was it’s time for us to take on one more controversy, because we need to make some big changes this year.”
Bill Expected From House
The bills are technically dead, but no one really counts them as such, because the loose rules of the House and Senate allow lawmakers to revive legislation in many ways. In the House, sponsor Eric Pettigrew is working on a new version of his charter school bill, and the reform-minded senators say his rewrite will become the focus. But they say the teacher-evaluation bill in the Senate is good to go – and they might find some way to force it to the floor.
“There are always options,” Hobbs said. “Nothing is ever dead.”
One possible outcome: The issue may be wrapped up in a session-ending compromise that combines a number of issues.
McAuliffe Points Finger
McAuliffe issued a statement Friday evening that appeared to blame the standoff on Tom and state Sen. Steve Litzow, the ranking Republican on the committee. Her version suggests that she was willing to pass a modified version of the teacher-evaluation proposal, but charter schools were something she was unwilling to consider.
“Since Jan. 23, I have been trying to work with Sen. Rodney Tom, Sen. Steve Litzow and the Republicans on my committee to reach a compromise on the teacher evaluation bills,” she said. “I agreed to move both Sen. Tom’s and the governor’s evaluation bills out of committee, and would have attempted to move many other important bills. We have over 40 education bills in committee from early learning to special education to charter schools. I was told by Sen. Tom and Sen. Litzow nothing would move without the charter school bill.
“The recent McCleary decision held that we need to amply fund our current K-12 system. Instead of putting money into a select few charter schools, money should be focused on our existing classrooms.
“In all my years, I have never been unable to move bills out of committee. I am extremely disappointed Sen. Tom, Sen. Litzow and the Republicans refused to negotiate. It is our children’s loss.
“However, this breakdown in negotiations today will not be the end of the story. I will continue to work for a compromise and find a solution that will help all our students.”
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