Opinion

Education debate not just about pay

The teacher salary debate is threatening to overshadow an array of important steps the House of Representatives has taken toward improving Washington's education system by raising school accountability and performance.

First is action to address the worsening shortage of qualified teachers in specific areas such as math, science, special education and languages. The House has put forward several proposals, including: bringing back teachers who have left the profession and let their teaching certificates lapse; bringing in qualified classified school employees and private-sector professionals seeking a new career; and bringing back recently retired teachers.

To ensure that teachers are qualified, the House has sought to revamp the state's teacher assistance program and establish a "mentor academy" to train experienced teachers to help their new and junior colleagues in the classroom.

Second, the House has unanimously approved legislation that would make Washington Assessment of Student Learning test results available to students, their teachers and parents. This would allow children to enjoy their academic successes, and learn from their mistakes. It also would let parents see and better understand how their children are being tested, and it would give them tools to help at home.

Third is the action taken on the recommendations of the A+ Commission on Accountability. The House has introduced a bill that would begin holding schools accountable for students' academic performance, starting with the 200 failing schools out of our 2,600 schools statewide. It would require the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to notify each school identified as failing, work with parents and the school on an improvement plan and provide resources to implement that plan.

The bill emphasizes the strongest possible community involvement to remedy the situation. However, if the improvement plan is unsuccessful, or the failing school is uncooperative, the bill would give OSPI strong tools: the ability to directly intervene, and take over the failing school.

The idea of allowing the state to supersede local control makes many uncomfortable. In Washington there are schools in which 80 percent of the fourth-graders cannot read. After five years, these schools have shown less than 2 percent improvement. That is unacceptable - period. It is in cases like these that the state must, and would, step in.

Finally, the House is addressing the well-founded concern over schoolyard violence, bullying and harassment, an extremely complicated issue that unfortunately is being turned into a political football.

The governor, attorney general and superintendent of public instruction are calling for more intervention with students to encourage "correct" behavior that minimizes youth violence. The vague standards they would apply are subject to legal interpretations that run contrary to many of our First Amendment principles.

Obviously, we need to make every effort to ensure our children have a safe, respectful and civil learning environment. Reinforcing positive behaviors that make our schools safe is the responsibility of parents working at the local level. A course of action that teams parents with school boards will be the most effective in rolling back the tide of violence in our schools.

Then we get to the matter of fulfilling initiatives 728 and 732. The next biennium's budget is expected to allocate $10.3 billion to K-12 public education, including $834 million being moved from other state programs to fund the two initiatives. That would be equivalent to an 8.8 percent increase over the 1999-2001 budget.

K-12 education would receive 98.4 percent of the funding requested and mandated by the initiatives. Some programs would be affected because the governor has chosen not to continue funding them or because they overlap. But I-728 would be fully funded.

The I-732 debate results from conflicting language in the initiative, drafted by the Washington Education Association, the state teacher's union. The intent section of I-732 does refer to providing a cost-of-living allocation (COLA) for all employees of a district. However, the actual funding section of the initiative says, "the cost-of-living increases shall be calculated by applying the rate of the yearly increase in the cost-of-living index to any state-funded salary base used in state funding formulas for teachers and other school-district employees."

Salary increases for state-funded teachers always have been handled separately from increases for district employees whose salaries are paid with federal or local-levy dollars. While the intent of I-732 is to address COLA needs of all school-district employees, the legal language does not cover those paid by federal and local levy money. That's the language voters approved. As with all initiatives, it pays to read the fine print.

K-12 education is state government's primary constitutional obligation. It is our paramount commitment to each citizen and our future, reflected by the fact that K-12 education accounts for 44 percent of the total state operating budget. Is it a perfect system? No. But will we continue to work to ensure that children really learn, parents are involved, teachers are fairly compensated and schools held accountable? Every day.

Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, is co-vice chair of the House Education Committee.

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