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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Reform Vs. Funding: Battle Shaping Up In Washington Legislature

OLYMPIA, Wash. – One of the key battles shaping up in Olympia this year is over education reform. The Senate’s new majority coalition is proposing a series of measures aimed at getting better results in the classroom. Among the ideas: a state takeover of failing schools. Meanwhile, a key Senate Democrat says the focus should be on school funding – and proposes a new capital gains tax.

You could tell Republicans now control the Washington Senate education committee when Professor Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University was recently invited to testify. Right out of the gates, she put up a politically loaded PowerPoint slide.

It mapped all 295 school districts in Washington plus funding levels and student performance.

“And what you can see when you look at the relationship between spending and outcomes for our state is very little relationship, right?” Roza told lawmakers.

In other words, more money doesn’t necessarily translate into better student performance. This has become the gospel of the new Senate majority - made up of 23 Republicans and two Democrats. Majority Leader Rodney Tom, one of those Democrats, says it’s time to hold the adults accountable and give schools letter grades just like students get.

“Great education systems are built upon great schools," Tom said. "And if you’re going to have a great school you have to have a great principal and if you’re going to hold that principal accountable that principal needs to decide who’s in his school.”

Besides giving principals more control, Tom and his colleagues have suggested performance pay for teachers and bargaining teacher contracts at the state level, rather than district-by-district. Senate minority leader Ed Murray is wary.

He said Democrats are willing to look at teacher performance, "as long as it doesn’t turn into a war on teachers as a way to avoid paying a bill that we need to pay.”

The bill Murray refers to is $1 billion more for schools to start to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling that Washington is not adequately funding the K-12 system. Murray says it’s time for a new, dedicated source of funding for schools. He plans to introduce a capital gains tax to pay for all day kindergarten, smaller K-3 class sizes and other commitments the legislature made when it passed a sweeping education measure in 2009.

“We passed some significant reforms and we have not funded those," Murray said.

Republicans are quick to reject Murray’s capital gains tax idea. But with Democrats still in control of the Washington House, Murray says this could be the year for a “grand bargain” on education – with a combination of additional reforms and new funding. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."