Senate Education Day: Grade on Bipartisanship--F+

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Say this for state senators: They apparently tried to be bipartisan as they tackled education, one of the most important topics of the session in the wake of the landmark McCleary decision, which holds that the state is dramatically underfunding schools.

Yesterday, was "education day" in the Senate, and Steve Litzow, the Republicans' point person on the topic, started it off by thanking Democrat Rosemary McAuliffe for her "efforts and ideas." McAuliffe chaired the Senate's K-12 education committee for years until she was bumped by Litzow, who was installed as committee head by the Republican-dominated majority coalition. After Litzow's nice words, McAuliffe praised her rival for working "diligently to help us have a non-partisan committee."

And then the senators started debating actual bills.

First up was one of the most interesting bills of the day, SB 5328. Sponsored by Litzow, the bill calls for the state Board of Education to grade all schools on an A-F scale and parents to be notified of the grades. It's an idea that has been been making the rounds across the country, identified with an education reform movement that is particularly popular among conservatives.

In a debate that lasted over an hour, there was little crossing of the aisle to be found, a prime exception being the the two Democratic senators who joined with Republicans to create the majority coalition. Both Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon supported the bill.

"This really is a moment in time when we see huge differences," Sheldon said, referring to the decades he spent in the Democratic caucus before becoming part of this year's majority coalition caucus. In his new caucus, and in his Mason County district, he said, "the grading system means accountability and responsibility."

"It's all about transparency. It's all about clarity," Tom, who serves as the majority leader, chimed in.

Many Republicans also spoke in favor of the bill, none more colorfully than the always entertaining Pam Roach. She blamed parents and their lack of engagement for the woes of struggling schools. So, she reasoned, they need the "wake-up call" of grades. "If this bill helps bop [parents] upside the be it."

Most Democrats, in contrast, bemoaned what they cast as the demoralizing effect that a "D" or "F' grade would have. Seattle's Ed Murray, the Democratic leader, noted that failing schools are "mostly poor, where language is an issue, where diversity is an issue. We're labeling schools very different than this body."

McAuliffe and Sen. Mark Mullet proposed amendments that would scrap the A-F concept in favor of more nuanced grades--like "excellent" or "not making adequate progress." They got voted down. The reigning majority did make one concession: agreeing to an amendment that attached an unspecified amount of state funding to flunking schools in order to carry out an "action plan."

Despite further protests by Democrats that the bill represented a "distraction" from the McCleary mandate to come up with more funding, the legislation passed with a 26-23 vote. Majority coalition members passed other reform bills important to them, including one that would give principals veto power over teacher placement, a measure ardently opposed by many Democrats.

So while senators are at least talking to each other civilly across the aisle, something not to be taken for granted in light of the tensions that flared after the majority coalition seized power, they remain as far apart as ever.

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