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Originally published Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 11:08 AM

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Gregoire wants just one state education agency

Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposal to create a single education department covering preschool through college, if approved by the Legislature, would make Washington one of the only states to put all those areas under a single umbrella.

Seattle Times education reporter

Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposal to create a single education department covering preschool through college, if approved by the Legislature, would make Washington one of the only states to put all those areas under a single umbrella.

Gregoire announced Wednesday that she wants to create a new Department of Education, headed by a secretary she would appoint, subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

In her view, that one department could succeed where an alphabet soup of agencies has failed to give Washington students the education they deserve — and probably save money, too.

"We know that learning starts at birth and continues throughout one's life," she said. "It's time we reflect the reality of that by bringing our education efforts ... into a single, focused education agency."

If voters expect her to ensure a strong education for all students, she said, she needs more authority.

"If I am ultimately responsible," she said, "let me be responsible."

Her proposal would eliminate long-standing agencies such as the state Board of Education and the Higher Education Coordinating Board (HEC). The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, now headed by an elected official, would become one piece of the new department.

Along with K-12, the new department also would have divisions for early childhood, community college and technical education, and university programs. There also would be an advisory council, appointed by the governor. An operations department would handle functions such as personnel and accounting, research and data, and special services such as online learning.

Nationally, only Florida has something similar to what Gregoire has proposed, said Bruce Vandal of the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan policy organization based in Colorado. But there's a lot of discussion about the idea, he said, given that many states are looking for ways to streamline operations.

Washington also is one of just 14 states where the schools chief is elected, according to the Education Commission. Others are appointed by the governor or the state board of education.

Power grab?

Randy Dorn, in his third year as Washington's superintendent of public instruction, issued a sharp criticism of Gregoire's proposal, calling it an attempt by the governor to grab power.

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"I don't believe making one person more powerful works that well," he said.

And he thinks the proposal would violate the state constitution, which he says makes him accountable to the people, not the governor.

Sam Smith, a HEC Board member and former president of Washington State University, also expressed doubts, saying Gregoire didn't provide ample reasons to justify the creation of a new department.

"I agree with what she wants to do as far as improving education; I'm just not sure this is the way," he said.

But a number of key legislators and others say it's an idea that would remove some long-standing obstacles to improving education in Washington state, and deserves a good hearing.

"I applaud her," said state Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, chair of the House Education Appropriations Committee. "It's something that we have talked about for years."

No one wants kids to fail, she said, but the system isn't as coordinated as it needs to be.

Ross Hunter, D-Medina, incoming chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said there are a lot of questions that need to be worked out, but he likes the governor's goals.

In going through the state budget, he said, there are too many groups that have been working on projects for years with little concrete progress.

Gregoire said she doesn't think her proposal would require a constitutional change, because she's not proposing doing away with the Superintendent of Public Instruction as an elected position.

"I am recommending that that person be accountable and report to the secretary of education," she said. "Nothing in the constitution stops us from doing that."

14 different plans

Gregoire said the people of Washington expect her to provide a strong education system and she spends a lot of time on education issues. But technically, she said, there is only one part of the education system that reports directly to her — the Department of Early Learning, which she created in 2006 with the blessing of the Legislature.

The single education department, she said, would reduce the amount of time that various agencies spend coordinating and planning, which she said was "far too much" time.

Right now, she said, those agencies have 14 different plans covering different parts of the education system.

On Wednesday, she also proposed transforming the senior year of high school into a "launch year" that would focus more intensely on getting students ready for higher education or work, and making it possible for students to shave one year off college or career training.

One goal: Create a more uniform system of what credits community colleges will accept from high school, and universities will accept from community colleges.

Gregoire's proposed education overhaul also would focus on boosting college graduation, with a particular emphasis on science and math-related degrees, and endorses recommendations from the state's new higher-education task force, including giving colleges and universities more flexibility in tuition-setting authority, and to increase accountability and performance.

Gregoire also endorsed the task force's other suggestions, including a $1 billion scholarship fund from the private sector linked with state tax breaks.

But the proposal to create the new education department generated the biggest buzz.

"I've been reflecting on it because I realize this would be a big change for the state," said Paul Rosier, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.

Right now, he said, with so many groups responsible for pieces of K-12 education, "it's kind of like a five-headed monster."

Whether the governor's proposal is the answer, he said, isn't yet clear, but now is as good a time as any to look at the governance of education in Washington state.

"Where we are in K-12 right now," he said, "isn't where we want to be."

Jeff Vincent, chairman of the State Board of Education, said his board agrees and has been working toward many of the goals in the governor's proposal, such as making high school count and fixing what it sees as a fractured education system.

In his personal view, he said, that fractured system "is one of the biggest impediments for us to move education forward."

The board hasn't yet had a chance to discuss the proposal, he said, but he added that he personally thinks it could be a good move.

If getting a good system in place to govern education means the end of the state board of education, he says he could support that.

"You can't talk about change and the need for change and say it's good for everyone else except for me," he said.

Seattle Times reporter Katherine Long and The Associated Press contributed to this story. Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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