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Education-related policy bills remain alive as lawmakers move to fill budget priorities

With the Supreme Court's McCleary decision mandating full funding for education by 2018 and policy bills out of the way, Washington State lawmakers have now moved the issue to the top of their budgeting priorities.

But with a Democratic-controlled House and a coalition-controlled Senate placing the Republican agenda in the majority, the fate of other education-related bills that passed out of their respective chambers remains uncertain.

Among education policy bills awaiting their fate are those related to performance and accountability.

Grading schools

If approved by the House, this bill would require the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to grade schools on an A-F achievement formula. The grades would be determined by the existing accountability index, which evaluates levels of student achievement across different demographics. As the bill is currently written, OSPI would identify five school districts in "geographically diverse" areas and begin a pilot program for the 2013-2014 school year that implements the evaluation process.

The legislation, SB 5328, passed 26 to 23 in the Senate and received a public hearing before the House Education Committee on March 15. No further House action has been taken.

Third-grade reading

Passing 35 to 13 off the Senate floor, SB 5237 would require third-grade students to either repeat the grade or attend summer school if a failing score is awarded on the English Language Arts (ELA) statewide assessment. Also under this bill, K-4 report cards would have to provide information regarding the students' reading level and the parents of any student scoring below the acceptable ELA grade would have to meet with the student's teacher to discuss remediation and grade-improvement strategies.

Accelerated placement program

Upon passing the statewide assessment during the tenth grade, students would be automatically enrolled in advanced classes during the first semester of their junior year. While most comments before legislative committees have been favorable toward this legislation, some teachers and lawmakers have expressed concern with the program limiting post-secondary options to students. More specifically, some feel that the legislation forces students down the path of a four-year university and turns them away from pursuing enrollment at community colleges, vocational/trade schools and apprentice programs. Parents would have an opportunity to opt their students out of the program. Companion bills, SB 5243 and HB 1642, passed out of their respective chambers and are receiving hearings in education committees this week.

Panic alarms

A policy to implement a panic-alarm system would have to be created by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the School Safety Advisory Committee and adopted by school districts. The intent is to expedite law enforcement in the event of a security threat within the school. Other security measures are suggested in the bill, SB 5197. The measure passed unanimously out of the Senate and received a public hearing in the House Education Committee March 14.

It's no secret that Washington state schools are ranked 42nd in the nation for high school completion. In fact, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have referenced this figure time and time again to bolster their reason for introducing various pieces of education-related legislation.

Some would blame the low score on inadequate funding, as the state Supreme Court did in McCleary vs. Washington State. Some would say is a result of inadequate teaching or poor curriculum. And others would argue it's a combination of both.

"While much of the public discussion around the McCleary decision has focused on how much money should be spent," said Rep. Cathy Dahlquist (R-Enumclaw), "I believe it is vital that we simultaneously focus on how money is spent in the education system."

However, bills regarding public education funding have thus far not largely been considered as many legislators have said they were awaiting the next revenue forecast released March 20.

House Republicans introduced their Fund Education First budget March 14, in which $903 million is appropriated for K-12 education funding. Their budget proposal, PSHB 1057, has been introduced by House GOP members since 2006 to no avail. Funding allocations would provide:

• $302 million to K-13 class-size reductions

• $229 million to increase full-day kindergarten

• $158 million to increased instructional hours in grades 7-12

• $128 million for materials and operating costs

No other official budget package has been introduced thus far regarding education funding. With a Democratic-controlled House, it is unlikely that PSHB 1057 in its present form would move forward.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn has requested that the Legislature appropriate funds to the tune of $4.1 billion for the 2013-2015 biennium. The Supreme Court's McCleary decision did not enumerate a specific dollar amount to meet its priorities.

As Sen. Rodney Tom (D-Medina) and Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlach) took over the Senate leadership by forming the Majority Coalition Caucus (MCC) this year, they said they would take a bipartisan approach to their priorities, which is to pass policies to assist with job creation, fund basic education and to create a sustainable budget.

Nevertheless, the Senate minority — the remaining 23 Democrats — challenge the MCC's progress in achieving the above goals in a bipartisan manner.

"It's a right-wing Republican agenda, as you've seen with the bills they've passed," said Sen. Ed Murray (D-Seattle). He served as Majority Leader last year.

The regular session is scheduled to end April 28 provided budgets are adopted.

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