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Legislative session mixed for education
By Mary L. Grady
State Legislators took on everything from offering to pay for continuing education for teachers to parental permission for sex education classes this legislative session. But with the session coming to a close on Sunday, April 24, the state's attitudes toward funding and defining public education in the state remain enigmatic.
A search with the word ``education'' within the Washington State Legislature Web site brings up a list of 88 bills that were offered for debate and voting during the 2005 Legislative session. About two-thirds of those bills had to do directly with k-12 education.
The main focus for voters, parents, teachers and students statewide are bills regarding how the state will approach school funding. Also important is the undetermined fate of funds collected through Initiative 728 for reducing class sizes. Another bill addressed continuing education tuition reimbursement plus cost of living raises for teachers. Also on the agenda was how to increase opportunities for four year college degrees for state residents; the implementation of a defined sex and health curriculum was also brought to lawmakers; rules to determine when and how often students can retake the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), a requirement for high school graduation beginning with the class of 2008.
The simple majority bill, designed to change the two-thirds supermajority vote now required to pass levies to fund education, fell four votes short of the necessary two-thirds of the Senate to pass the bill and send the constitutional change to the voters. The bill would have allowed a simple majority of voters to approve school levies, which pay for school operations. Currently, school districts need at least 60 percent approval to pass bonds and levies.
Senate Bill 5638 on standardized testing for students, did not get voted out of the Appropriations Committee by the cut-off date. However, as the WASL and alternative testing are part of the budget, it may be passed through the final budget process. The bill involves the ability for students who fail the WASL to retake the test and/or use alternative methods of taking the test and student transcript notations regarding the WASL. Two amendments were added: Removal of the requirement that a student's WASL score is noted on their high school transcripts (the amendment also removed the transcript marking that would note whether the student passed the WASL or took the alternative assessment); and provision a to allow students to access the alternative assessment after failing the WASL only once. Previously, the student would need to take the WASL two times before being allowed to take the alternative. The budget appropriation of $3.5 million has been set to implement the provisions of this bill.
Sex and health education bills have had a similar uncertain fate. Members of the Senate and the House each introduced nearly identical bills in their focus on sponsoring the development of sex education and health curriculum information to students. Along with these bills, another bill was introduced to get parental permission for students to attend sexual health classes. House Bill 1282 passed the House on March 4 by a vote of 61-36. It passed out of the Senate Early Learning, K-12 & Higher Education Committee, but then was referred to the Senate Health & Long-term Care Committee, where it remains.
Education finance study
After more than two years of debate, an education finance study bill has passed the House and Senate, and is on its way to the governor for her signature. Senate Bill 5441, sponsored by Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, passed the Senate on March 3 by a vote of 31-18. It passed the House on April 7 by a vote of 76-20. This measure was on the concurrence calendar, after Reporter deadline, meaning the Senate will consider whether to adopt the House amendments.
The measure allows the community and technical college system to offer selected bachelor's degrees in high-demand fields and in areas of the state where such degrees aren't currently offered. Both the Senate and House passed the proposal. The bill also sets up a pilot program at three community colleges to offer four year degrees.