Inslee's stance on school letter grades gets F for fuzziness

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OLYMPIA — In his first three months in office, Gov. Jay Inslee hasn’t been especially active in the legislative process.

Compared to his predecessor, Chris Gregoire, who was perhaps a bit hyperactive, Inslee has been more hands off.

Other than some economic development and environmental bills, his executive requests have been few. Other than last week’s assertive condemnation of a Senate budget proposal, his engagement has been limited.

That’s why, when the new governor has taken a strong and specific position on an issue, it is vital that he sticks with it. Lawmakers who act with the knowledge that the governor not only supports a policy, but also proposed it, need to be able to rely on that.

Certainly, Senate Education Committee Chairman Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, should have been safe in assuming that an education bill he sponsored would find favor in the governor’s office.

Senate Bill 5328 would assign letter grades A through F to school-by-school ratings already created by the state.

Litzow argues that using clearly understandable letter grades, in addition to the somewhat bureaucratic terms already used in the State Board of Education’s Accountability Index, would help parents and taxpayers understand how their schools are performing.

The bill has attracted opposition from the education community, especially the Washington Education Association, and it was blocked in the Democrat- controlled House. It is possible, if not likely, that the issue will be part of the final dealmaking that brings this session to an end.

If so, what Inslee said during the campaign last summer is important:

“We have a quarter of our children who are sort of forgotten children and that’s going to be unacceptable when I’m governor,” Inslee said in an endorsement interview with the education reform group Stand for Children. “It’s one of the reasons I’m proposing for every school to have a letter grade that will be given and disseminated to the parents in the district so that we hold ourselves accountable.”

Inslee didn’t propose such a bill; Litzow did. But now Inslee’s chief of staff and legislative liaison have told Litzow that the governor can’t support the bill, complaining of vague definitions and a short timeline. The bill calls for 10 school districts to test the new measures this coming school year.

“It’s a heavy lift in a short period of time and it seemed too fast,” said Inslee’s press secretary, David Postman.

Inslee supported A-through-F grading during the campaign, but did not commit to support any specific bill on the topic, Postman said, adding “You have to care about the details.”

But Mary Alice Heuschel, Inslee’s chief of staff and the former superintendent of the Renton school district, seemed to tell the Seattle Times last week that Inslee wasn’t wedded to letter grades at all, wanting “an effective and efficient way to communicate school performance ... whether that is a grade or number or label or anything else.”

Postman, however, said “his preference, clearly, is A-through-F.”

If so, Inslee is on the same side as a large majority of voters in the state. A poll released last week shows voter support for interventions for kids not reading at grade level by the third grade (90 percent); letting principals have a stronger say in deciding which teachers join a school’s staff (85 percent); giving the state school superintendent oversight of consistently failing schools (77 percent); and A-F grading of individual schools (66 percent).

Self-identified Democrats and lean Democrats closely matched the overall support for all four proposals.

The poll, conducted between March 22 and 26, was done by Strategies 360 for Stand for Children. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percent statewide and 6.9 percent in the five legislative districts that were oversampled.

Inslee’s spokesman said details are important, which is hard to dispute. But flaws can be found in any bill if you try hard enough. When you agree on the policy you shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

This bill isn’t that big a deal. It is important but not vital. Too often, though, this is what we fight about so we don’t have to take on the hard stuff.

Peter Callaghan can be reached at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

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