Randy Dorn's plans to replace the WASL made headlines this week, but it may not be the biggest news in education at the moment. Education committees in the state Legislature will hold hearings next week on a bill that prime sponsor Fred Jarrett (D-Mercer Island) pitches as "the most thorough reform in education at least since (House Bill) 1209 in the early '90s." That was the bill that created the high-stakes testing system that led to the WASL, in conformance with a demand for standards and accountability that was sweeping the country.
Those issues are still in play. But the lack of education funding in this state, with Washington near the bottom of the list nationwide in terms of per pupil allocations, has also become a huge issue, regularly lamented by superintendents, school board members and parents around the state. Jarrett says his 111-page bill would spend 40 to 60 percent more on education, with increases phased in over the next six years, beginning in the next biennium.
It would do so by redefining "basic education," which the state is required to fund by virtue of its constitution. Basic education would mean teaching that gave children the opportunity to obtain a "meaningful" high school degree that allowed them to enter college (as opposed to our current standards, which do not require enough math to get into four-year colleges). The bill specifies further that the state would pay for a six-period day in high schools (many schools now offer only five periods). Most remarkably, the bill would set a standard for class sizes: 15 students for kindergarten through 4th grade, 25 students for all higher grades. Currently, classes tend to average between 25 and 30 students.
The bill does a variety of other things, some of which may be controversial. The Washington Education Association has objected to the way it restructures compensation for teachers, according to Jarrett. (WEA officials could not be reached as of this writing.) The bill removes extra pay for those with Master's degrees and ties salaries to averages in other industries.
Surely, though, the biggest controversy will center on dramatic increases in funding. Given our economic crisis, Gov. Christine Gregoire's budget proposes slashes in education funding, along with everything else. Jarrett, who notes that no immediate money will be spent, insists "we have the best shot we've ever had." Since everybody is focusing on the bleak budget, he says the bill is "one of the few positive things we have the opportunity to do this year," something that says "here's our plan for reinvesting in education as we move out of the recession."