Public schools bear burden of underfunding, perception of failing

Public schools are not just underfunded by the state as Washington’s Supreme Court has made abundantly clear.

Jerry Cornfield

Public schools are not just underfunded by the state as Washington’s Supreme Court has made abundantly clear.

Most of them are also failing, according to the federal government.

Parents of elementary and secondary students across the state are receiving letters this month explaining why their child attends a school deemed failing by the U.S. Department of Education. These letters offer parents a chance to transfer their child to a non-failing school in their district, if one exists, and to obtain tutoring if their family qualifies.

Roughly 90 percent of the state’s 2,300 schools must send out these letters. It’s punishment for not complying with a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind Act requiring every student meet state standards in math, reading and English language.

This was all kind of a big deal a year ago and has not made as much a stir this summer.

Remember Washington began 2014 with a waiver from the federal education law’s stringent rules. It then lost it. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had warned he would revoke the waiver unless state law was changed to require the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers.

That set off a fierce fight involving lawmakers, Gov. Jay Inslee and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn.

Most Democrats and a few Republican lawmakers opposed the change. So, too, did the Washington Education Association, the powerful statewide teacher’s union.

Inslee and Dorn met with Duncan in Washington, D.C. to gauge his resolve. They returned with determination to preserve the waiver, crafting what they hoped to be a compromise bill. It never earned a vote.

After Duncan kept his word and yanked the waiver, 1,916 schools sent out the so-called failing school letters. Only 260 schools didn’t because their students met the standards.

The letters are attracting less attention this year.

That’s partly due to the commotion caused by the Supreme Court’s $100,000-a-day fine against the state for lawmakers not turning in a plan to ensure ample funding for schools by a 2018 deadline.

Another reason is that lawmakers, the governor and state schools chief did not battle as long or as loudly on getting the waiver back in the long legislative session.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, did push a bill to revise the teacher evaluation system. It never gained traction as complying with McCleary grabbed his colleagues focus.

Then interest waned as a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law drafted by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., made its way through the Senate. As written it would do away with waivers and the letters would stop if it reaches the president’s desk.

Still, sending out the letters really torques Dorn.

On Monday, when he released results of Smarter Balanced Assessments, he declared that while there continues to be gaps in achievement among ethnic groups at each grade level, overall “learning actually went up. The rigor actually went up.”

Those letters express a different message and one that can cause unnecessary confusion and worry for parents, he said.

But like underfunding, they’re a burden borne by public schools until those making the laws figure things out.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623; and on Twitter at @dospueblos


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