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Originally published February 3, 2013 at 7:59 PM | Page modified February 3, 2013 at 10:02 PM

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‘Battle royale’ on schools expected in Legislature

Three weeks into the legislative session, lawmakers appear divided on the key issue of improving schools. With the Senate focused on reform and the House focused on funding, observers are predicting a “battle royale” of negotiations.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — Lawmakers’ squabbles over public schools in the early weeks of the 2013 session sound a lot like last year’s battles over education — with a few new twists and much higher stakes.

The recurring dynamic: Senate Republicans are demanding more accountability, while House Democrats are insisting that money is needed more than reform.

The new twists: Gov. Jay Inslee, so far, has stayed above the fray, and an unusual Senate coalition has helped Republicans introduce proposals that had little chance of success in the past.

And the stakes: The Legislature is under more pressure than ever a year after the state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to put more money into education.

Three weeks into the session, lawmakers and education advocates say the dynamics could add up to complicated negotiations in which change-minded senators demand new policies in exchange for new funding.

“Clearly, both parties are positioning right now for a showdown that will probably take place at the very end of the session,” said Rick Chisa, a spokesman for the Public School Employees of Washington. “It’ll come down to a battle royale between Democrats and Republicans over how much money to put in and what the other side will get in return.”

The positioning started in earnest last week in the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, where Republicans introduced bills that would grade every school, create a state-run district for low-performing schools and give principals the ability to refuse teachers assigned to their building, among other ideas.

The bills are widely expected to clear the GOP-controlled Senate, despite objections from Democrats, such as Minority Leader Ed Murray, who on Friday called the legislation a “right-wing tea-party agenda.”

They’re expected to get a chilly reception in the Democrat-controlled House.

The House Education Committee is weighing policy changes of its own, including a still-to-be unveiled bill from chairwoman Sharon Tomiko Santos, that she says would address policies involving discipline, English-language learners and cultural competency.

But Santos and other Democrats said the House is planning to focus more on education funding than policy.

“The most radical reform of all is to fully fund our schools,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.

The Democrats said they plan to push for a minimum of $1.4 billion more for education this biennium, in part through new taxes.

Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said the Democratic governor’s goal is still $1 billion. But he hasn’t yet tapped an education policy chief.

Sen. Steve Litzow, chairman of the Senate education committee, said Republicans are still working on their goal but are thinking about a range of $500 million to $1.5 billion.

Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said the real key is deciding where the money goes.

“We have to put more money in, but if you do not put it in where it’s going to impact student learning, then it doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

Many bills regarding how to spend the money have been introduced, and lawmakers will sort through them in the next few weeks.

Lobbyists from education advocacy groups said they are keeping their eye on one measure in particular.

The far-reaching bill, written by longtime Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove and co-sponsored by Republican budget writer Andy Hill, would rewrite current funding plans and restructure how the state pays teachers.

The bill will get a hearing Monday.

Senate

The hearing on Hargrove’s bill continues the early trend of more action on education taking place in the Senate.

Eight controversial measures have been introduced, including bills to give bonuses to math and science teachers; to make student test scores a bigger part of teacher evaluations; and to prohibit most third-graders from advancing to fourth grade until they pass the state reading test.

The bills are mostly aligned with the so-called education-reform movement, which seeks to spur improvement by adding more accountability and choice to public education.

But at hearings last week, teachers-union leaders and state education officials argued that the bills would bring too much change too fast.

Democrats say the Legislature hasn’t even funded some changes it already approved, including new teacher evaluations.

“The Republican mantra is reform before revenue, and I agree” said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. “We’ve done the reforms. Now, we need to fund them.”

The Senate is also weighing measures related to discipline and school safety.

House

The House has moved slower, in part, because nonbudget policy is usually debated before budget-related policy — and House leaders believe the problems are budget-related.

The most-talked about measure is the multifaceted one written by Santos, the education chairwoman.

The bill would expand teacher training on cultural competency, improve oversight of English-language programs and increase availability of data about student discipline.

A separate bill written by Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, would remake school dropout-prevention systems.

House Republicans have introduced accountability measures like those in the Senate.

In addition, Republicans last week attempted to rewrite the House budgeting process to fund education before anything else.

Democrats, who believe that approach would devastate the social safety net, rejected the idea.

Governor

Lawmakers from both chambers said they are eager to hear more from the new Democratic governor.

Inslee weighed in in a small way last week when he used one of his first public appearances to tell a group of children visiting the Capitol that he would not slash social services to pay for education.

“It is not a solution to one crisis to create another,” he said.

But spokeswoman Smith said the governor still does not think new taxes are necessary this session.

She added the administration will wait until March to release a budget proposal, and even then, may not present anything more than a “detailed blueprint.”

Smith said Inslee is supportive of ideas that expand innovation and boost programs in math and science.

What about grading schools? A state-run district for low-performing schools? Putting more test scores into teacher evaluations?

“He’s open to talking about it,” Smith said.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 360-236-8267 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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