NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

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.

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