Teachers’ Union Takes a Loss

An education overhaul opposed by the WEA wins support in Olympia.

How do you get a mandate for major new funding enacted in the middle of one of the worst financial crises ever? "Persistence," says Kim Howard, community relations/advocacy coordinator for the state PTA, one of several education groups that lobbied aggressively for a bill that calls for significant new state spending on education. Persistence, and leaving many of the details--including precisely what is to be funded, what it will cost, where the money will come from, and when it will start being spent--for later. Under the state constitution, the government is required to pay for "basic education." And House Bill 2261, which the legislature passed this week after intense political skirmishes, provides a semi-sketched-out redefinition of what exactly that is. At its most specific, the bill spells out that basic education will include all-day kindergarten and six periods a day in high school. Currently, the state funds only half-day kindergarten and a five-period high-school day. Howard says the bill's high-school provision is "huge," because to be accepted into most colleges these days, students need more credits than five periods can generate. Other details will be left to various work groups, committees, and state boards. For instance, the bill asks one work group to create models of "prototype" schools, with ideal class sizes and school staffing numbers, which would then be incorporated into the definition of basic education. Another work group will explore how to pay for all this by the year 2018, by which time the new system is supposed to be phased in. Much of the money will undoubtedly come from the general fund, says Sen. Fred Jarrett (D-Mercer Island), one of the prime movers behind the legislation (and a recently announced candidate for King County Executive). "We spend 42 percent of the general-fund budget on K–12 education, whereas around the country, that number is closer to 50," he asserts. But he also says that a new tax may be necessary. "Either the legislature will enact a tax and Tim Eyman will put it on the ballot as a referendum, or the legislature will start off with a referendum," Jarrett predicts. Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, nevertheless assails the bill as an "empty promise with no revenue attached." The teachers' union vehemently opposed it, not only for its lack of an identifiable funding stream but also because of its call to redesign teacher pay, certification, and evaluation. The bill doesn't spell out those details either, but Lindquist says that based on previous education-reform bills, she can see where all this is heading. She expects the work groups to call for things that the union opposes, such as basing teaching certification in part on classroom evaluations. In spite of the WEA's position, Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn—both closely allied with labor—came out for HB 2261. McAuliffe says legislators tried to address the WEA's concerns by stipulating in the bill that teachers collaborate on planning some of these changes. "We still couldn't get them on board," she says.

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