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Originally published Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 4:25 PM

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Wash. governor calls for new education department

Gov. Chris Gregoire is pushing for a major overhaul of the state's education system, proposing the creation of a state Department of Education that would take over duties handled by the voter-elected state school superintendent and other agencies, and establishing a secretary of education.

Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. —

Gov. Chris Gregoire is pushing for a major overhaul of the state's education system, proposing the creation of a state Department of Education that would take over duties handled by the voter-elected state school superintendent and other agencies, and establishing a secretary of education.

Gregoire announced the plan Wednesday, part of her efforts to streamline government during the economic downturn.

The Democratic governor said consolidating Washington's education efforts - "from preschool to the Ph. D." - would save time and money, and improve outcomes for students.

"Today in our state, we do not have an education system," Gregoire said. "We have a collection of agencies that deal with the subject of education."

But the plan is not without opposition.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn issued a stern statement saying he reports to the people, not Gregoire.

"The governor can create any staff position she wants. Her proposal, however, would require the state superintendent to report to a new secretary of education," Dorn said. "I am an elected official: My boss is the people of this state, not the governor. That is state law, explicit in Article III of the state constitution."

Under Gregoire's plan, a new Education Department would absorb responsibilities currently held by an array of officials, including Dorn, who oversees public K-12 education in the state. The department would supervise the state's entire schooling system and would be headed by a secretary, reporting to the governor.

The education secretary would work with a state Education Council, whose members also would be appointed by the governor, and a K-12 education ombudsman.

But questions about whether Gregoire's plan is constitutional will have to be answered as the bills are written and debated. The state constitution establishes the state superintendent's office, and it's unclear how that clause affects having an elected official reporting to a cabinet-level appointment.

Dorn was quick to point that out in his statement.

Dorn said he supports consolidating commissions and eliminating agencies, but he says funding is the primary issues affecting public schools.

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The governor, though, said there's nothing in the state constitution that precludes a cabinet-level appointment from having authority over the superintendent.

The president of the state's largest teachers union said Wednesday she is concerned about several elements of the governor's proposal, including having someone who is appointed, rather than elected, head the Education Department.

"With 40 percent of state budget going to education, it should be an elected position," said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association. "You want someone there who is directly accountable for what happens in education."

Lindquist added she recognizes Gregoire's proposal comes from a place of economic desperation. And she said she looks forward to hearing more details, especially if there's some potential for saving money.

At the Higher Education Coordinating Board, executive director Don Bennett called the proposal "bold," but cautioned that his members will look at it to see if it can improve student learning. He added the board, which provides planning, coordination and other duties among the state's four-year universities, has been working on many of the governor's goals for years, including the transition of students from community colleges to universities.

"We want to look at game-changers because we really want to strengthen our schools and make it better for our kids. In that respect, I applaud it," said Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, the ranking House Republican on the Education Committee.

Dammeier did caution, however, that consolidating the state's massive amount of education governance isn't necessarily an improvement. He pointed to the largest state agency, the Department of Social and Health Services, which was created as a combination of related agencies decades ago.

Gregoire's proposal also included a plan to transform the senior year of high school into a "launch year" that focuses more intensely on getting students ready for higher education or work.

The education overhaul also would focus on boosting college graduation, with a particular emphasis on science and math-related degrees and underrepresented demographic groups.

In addition, the plan would put into effect recommendations from the new higher education task force, including greater flexibility for individual colleges to raise their tuition. Gregoire also is endorsing the task force's other suggestions, including a $1 billion scholarship fund from the private sector linked with state tax breaks.

"At the end of the day, it's all about the students' performance," Gregoire said.

Washington's Democrat-led Legislature convenes Monday for a 105-day session.

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Online:

http://www.governor.wa.gov

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Associated Press writer Donna Blankinship in Seattle contributed to this report.

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