Offering daily news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

How Jay Inslee can stand up for Washington’s kids

In the wake of the Washington State Senate’s remarkable, bipartisan revolt against standardized testing mandates, the issue has rocketed to the top of the state’s political agenda. It was a prominent issue across the state yesterday at the various legislative town halls.

Education reform groups are mobilizing to reverse the Senate’s decision, voicing concern that as much as $38 million in federal grants may be lost unless Washington teacher evaluations are linked to student test scores – even if parents do not want such a link to be made. And today Governor Jay Inslee, in Washington D.C. for the National Governors Association meeting, will sit down with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to discuss the issue.

Duncan is not going to simply back down without being forced to do so. But by taking away Duncan’s leverage and calling his bluff, Washington State political leaders can protect our kids from being overtested.

It’s worth thinking about how bluffing works. The entire point is for the bluffer to turn a weak position into a winning one by making the other side quit because they are afraid of what the bluffer might do – whether it’s laying down a straight flush and taking the pot, or yanking millions in federal education funds. A bluff works when the other side believes you, doesn’t want to take the risk, and folds. Bluffing fails when the other side doesn’t believe you and refuses to be intimidated. Especially when they know they, not the bluffer, have the winning hand.

Education reformers like Duncan have consistently failed to get Washington State to directly link teacher evaluations to test scores. Parents, teachers, and students have resisted such a link because they know it will erode the quality of classroom instruction by “teaching to the test.” These attitudes are bipartisan and cross the ideological spectrum. Public anger at standardized testing is producing a nationwide backlash as parents demand schools focus on instruction and not on testing.

Several years ago Washington legislators arrived at a sensible compromise, requiring districts to include measures of student growth in their evaluations of teachers – but leaving it to the districts to decide what that actually meant. It’s a good system that should be given time to be properly implemented. But Duncan insists that teacher evaluations be directly linked to specific test scores, even where states have chosen not to do so.

Education reformers and their Republican allies are trying to make this issue not about teacher evaluations and standardized tests – they know they’ll lose on that ground. So instead they have reframed the debate as whether Washington will lose out on as much as $38 million in federal funding.

That’s no small amount of money – except in comparison to the billion-dollar tab of complying with the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. The Legislature is already under strict court order to come up with $1 billion to adequately fund K-12 education. The Legislature should simply tell the U.S. Department of Education it has no problem adding another $38 million to that bill. It’s easy, affordable, and worth every penny given the restoration of local control over education policy that comes with it.

Such a step only becomes necessary if Duncan carries out his threat. If Governor Inslee and the Legislature tell Duncan that Washington will simply backfill any lost federal funding, standing firm in the face of federal demands, Duncan will have to fold. Especially since his remaining cards are very weak.

The other threat the U.S. Department of Education has made is that it will revoke the state’s waiver from the odious No Child Left Behind law. This is their most obvious bluff. Without the waiver, schools not meeting the requirement that 100% of students be meeting test score standards will have to send letters home to parents explaining that their kid attends a “failing school.”

The Obama Administration has no desire to see this actually happen. President Obama has already pledged to fix No Child Left Behind. He also has spoken out repeatedly against standardized tests:

Don’t label a school as failing one day and then throw your hands up and walk away from it the next.

And don’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test.

President Obama knows that it would be bad politics for those letters to get sent home, and so he’s been looking for a way out. The waivers are not just leverage to get states to adopt policies they have otherwise refused. They’re also an essential escape from a serious political problem for the president.

After all, California has shown this strategy is successful. Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature faced a similar threat from Duncan, who vowed to revoke the NCLB waiver and take back millions in federal funding from California schools if the state went ahead with a one-year delay in administering a certain standardized test. California rejected the demand and so far, Duncan has not followed through on his threat.

The lessons are clear. Rather than approaching Duncan as a supplicant, Governor Inslee and the state legislature should be calling his bluff. They should pledge to backfill any federal grants that are taken away if Washington insists on protecting students from classrooms that teach to the test. They should stand with colleagues in other states that are also pushing back on flawed federal education mandates. Instead, they should collaborate together on sensible policies that will ensure our students get a good, comprehensive, holistic education that prepares them for life, rather than for bubble tests.