GOP education bills provoke questioning

Democrats in Olympia say their rivals are trying to foist cookie-cutter approaches from a right-wing think tank on Washington state students. Republicans say the ideas are fresh and deserving.
Crosscut archive image.

State Sen. Steve Litzow (R)

Democrats in Olympia say their rivals are trying to foist cookie-cutter approaches from a right-wing think tank on Washington state students. Republicans say the ideas are fresh and deserving.

Senate Democrats say two Republican education bills are cookie-cutter copies from a conservative think tank.

But Republicans say: Heck, no. Our bills are homemade with homegrown ingredients.

Democrat leaders argue that Republican bills — to grade schools on an A-to-F scale and to fail third-graders who cannot read at a certain level — come from the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank. ALEC's main thrust is writing bill prototypes for legislators to use. 

On Friday, Senate Democrats pointed to a Washington Post story about ALEC and a couple sister organizations share many staff members and donors — linking them to legislators who introduced education reform bills in six states. But Washington state was not named in that story.

But the story noted that the groups, including ALEC, push for online education, school choice, retaining kids in the third grade who cannot read above a certain level and grading schools on a scale of A-to-F.   

The Post quoted Donald Cohen, chairman of In The Public Interest, a think tank on privatization and contracting issues, that ALEC and one of the sister organizations receive some money from the same for-profit school corporations. 

On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said the Senate Republicans and ALEC "have the same cookie-cutter agenda. ...  It's part of a right-wing Tea Party agenda.

He added, "This is part of an attempt to dismantle and privatize education."

Murray, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, and Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the two bills are generic models conceived by ALEC and not tailored to specific Washington problems. And Washington's Legislature has passed educaton reforms in recent years, and now it must find money to make those reforms work, they argued. Also, the bills put extra requirements on school districts without providing extra money to handle the costs, the three said.

"This doesn't seem like change for the sake of the children, but change for the sake of change. ... We've done the reforms. Now we need the revenue," Billig said.

Murray, Frockt and Billig said the recent reforms will inevitably need tweaking.

Republican Senate Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, countered that the bills did not come from ALEC. He said the sponsors — Sen.Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, on the A-to-F system, and Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, on the third-grade-retention bill — are independent thinkers who do not belong to ALEC. Litzow and Dammeier could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

ALEC's membership includes roughly 2,000 state legislators. But it does not publicly name members, including the legislators. The website ALEC Exposed tracks members by various ways without ALEC's cooperation, and has published a list that is admittedly partial. It identifies eight current Washington senators and seven representatives as ALEC members. Litzow and Dammeier are not on that list,

Schoelser said more education reform is needed, which has been a major Republican thrust this session. "Just to throw dollars at it is just not the answer..... After eight years of Sen. (Rosemary) McAuliffe as chair [of the education committee], it's difficult for Sen. Murray to accept change," Schoesler said. McAuliffe, D-Bothell, lost that post when two Democrats joined 23 Republicans in recent weeks to oust the Democrats as the Senate majority party.

Dammeier's bill would not allow a third grader to move to fourth grade if that students scored the bottom grade of a four-grading-level reading test. The bill outlines some exceptions to that rule, which would go into effect in the 2014-2015 school year. The bill includes outlines for remedial measures. In 2015-16, schools would be required to provide remedial measures for students scoring in the bottom two levels of that four-level grade system.

In a Wednesday public hearing before the Senate Education Committee, the organizations Stand For Children and the League of Education Voters supported the bill. Stand For Children invested $148,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat McAuliffe in the last election, The Seattle Times reported.

The supporters said it is time to try new reforms, and this approach has worked in 15 other states.

Opposing the bill at the hearing were State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, the Washington Education Association, the Elementary School Principals of Washington, Parents for Student Success, the Equity in Education Coalition, and four school districts. The WEA has been a strong political supporter of McAuliffe. 

Their argument were that children learn at different paces, and that numerous factors — not just reading ability — should determine when a third grader is promoted or retained. They also voiced fear that non-white children would be retained more. And they contended more training on how to teach reading to third graders would achieve better long-term results.

Litzow's bill would compile numerous measures on a school's effectiveness with at-risk children, attendance, graduation rates and other factors. Then it would assign each school a grade from A through F. Schools that receive A's or show improvement from the previous year would get financial awards from a source yet to be determined. At the same Wednesday hearing, the business group Washington Roundtable, Stand For Children and Partnership For Learning supported the bill. They argued that the A-to-F system improves community involvement, which in helped schools improved in Florida, where this system is used .

Opponents testifying included the Washington Office of Public Instruction, the WEA, the Washington State School Directors Association, the Association of Washington Principals and one school district. They argued social and family factors affect students' performances, which are out of a school's control. They contended this approach would send money to schools doing well, and take it from the struggling schools that need the extra cash. And they said the state is already working on an accountability system to be ready by June.

Hovering over these proposed reforms is a Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state is not adequately taking care of  K-12 education. The current estimates are that $900 million to $1.7 billion in extra money is needed, with Democrats leaning high and Republicans leaning low in those projections. 

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8