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Originally published Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 8:04 PM

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Senate GOP scales back education agenda

The Republican wish list is having to confront issues such as cost concerns to arguments that there already have been a lot of school reforms.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — State Senate Republicans, who seized power this session in part to push sweeping change to the state’s public-school system, appear to be scaling back their wish list.

The GOP-run Senate education committee has approved bills to grade schools on an A-to-F scale and to allow principals to refuse teachers assigned to their buildings.

But the panel drastically altered legislation regarding third-graders who fail a state reading test and schools that consistently score among the worst in the state.

Two other major proposals, to put greater emphasis on student test scores in teacher evaluations and to give bonuses to certain teachers, never came up for a vote.

Maybe a majority isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Each bill in the much-anticipated GOP education agenda — the party has wanted to control the committee for nearly a decade — has faced its own issues, from cost concerns to arguments that schools have already undergone a lot of change recently.

The overarching themes of the opposition:

Education-advocacy groups, including the state teachers union, expectedly have been pressuring lawmakers to avoid major policy changes before fulfilling a state Supreme Court order to increase education funding.

And some conservative Republicans, perhaps unexpectedly, have voiced concerns that some of the bills — while seeking to add accountability — represent government overreach.

“Some people felt like this would be micromanaging,” said state Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw, who leads the party’s education-policy efforts in the House and works closely with the Senate.

“There are some Republicans who don’t even want the Department of Education to exist,” she noted.

State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican who serves as vice chairman of the education committee, said the Senate is “still wrestling” with many issues, including the overreach question.

Dammeier and Chairman Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said they have focused on passing bills with bipartisan support.

The paring back of the agenda was inevitable, lawmakers said.

“That’s the process,” said Litzow, adding he hopes to strengthen some of the bills in the future.

This session’s cutoff for nonbudget bills to make it out of committee passed a week ago, but lawmakers can still take procedural moves to revive bills.

The committee’s moves don’t change the fact that whatever Senate leaders want will ultimately have to be reconciled with opposition from a Democrat-run House and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee — perhaps as part of a grand end-of-session bargain.

Some business groups and change-minded advocates said they’re surprised Senate Republicans haven’t moved more of the original agenda.

“The folks on the ed committee seemed to be poised to go forward with some pretty significant bills,” said Jana Carlisle, executive director at the Partnership for Learning, a business group that pushes for more accountability in education. “Obviously we would like to see them do more, and we’re optimistic they will.”

Senate

State education chief Randy Dorn summed up the state of the session when asked at a recent luncheon if he has seen much agreement between the Senate and House.

“Not really,” Dorn said.

The Senate has focused on accountability measures that have been implemented in other states after lobbying from the so-called education-reform movement.

Letter grades for schools, for example, were approved last month in Virginia and have been approved in 11 states and New York City, according to The Washington Post.

The A-to-F grades are meant to give parents a clearer idea of how their child’s school is performing and to spur staff members to improve by providing pressure and additional funding as incentive. But opponents of Senate Bill 5328 see the grades as an oversimplification.

The principal veto of teacher placements is meant to stop the practice of passing poor teachers from school to school. But opponents of Senate Bill 5242 see that change as eliminating a key protection against arbitrary personnel moves.

Both bills are expected to pass the full Senate this week but run into trouble in the House as Democrats focus on education funding.

The two GOP bills amended in the Senate could have brighter House prospects.

Senate Bill 5237 would require third-graders who fail the state reading test to either repeat the grade or go to summer school, depending on what their parents want.

The original version mandated the grade repetition, a concept that made groups like the PTA uneasy.

Senate Bill 5329 requires the state’s 10 lowest-performing schools to get extra money and attention from the state. If they don’t improve, they would have to undergo changes and eventually could be shut down.

An early version had required the state take over the schools, which triggered concerns among some conservatives about usurping local control.

The dropped bills would have made student test scores 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and would have given 10 percent bonuses to math, science and special-education teachers.

Lawmakers said they were wary of making more changes to an evaluation system they have already changed twice recently. The bonuses would cost a lot.

House

The bills moving in the House are more modest.

Education Chairwoman Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, pointed to three key proposals:

House Bill 1424 would overhaul the way the state seeks to prevent students from dropping out, adding more funding and planning.

House Bill 1650 would require that high schools focus on post-school planning, putting more emphasis on career and technical education.

And House Bill 1680, sponsored by Santos, would expand teacher training on cultural competency, improve oversight of English-language programs and increase availability of data about student discipline.

“These are big bills that will help to close the opportunity gap,” said Santos. “These move us down the road.”

Another bill, which has support from both parties in the House and Senate, would automatically put students who pass the state test in any subject into a more advanced class in that area.

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

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