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More than education finance on legislative agenda

Saturday - 1/12/2013, 11:03am  ET

Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) - As lawmakers prepare to begin a 105-day legislative session in Olympia on Monday, one of their main issues will be to show the Washington Supreme Court the Legislature is making measurable progress toward improving the way the state pays for public education.

Most agree that the Legislature needs to find about $1 billion for a down payment on the estimated $4 billion needed to pay the full cost of basic education, including recent reforms like all-day kindergarten and class size reduction.

In its decision on the lawsuit brought by a coalition of school districts, parents and education groups _ known as the McCleary case for the family named in the suit _ the Supreme Court ruled the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation concerning education funding.

Lawmakers this past week said they intend to dig up the cash to fulfill their obligation to the court, but they emphasized that the McCleary decision is not just about money.

"Every independent study shows if you want results, money alone won't be the answer, reform alone won't be the answer," said state Sen. Ed Murray, the Senate Democratic leader.

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle and chair of the House Education Committee, said her committee will concentrate on improving education for the children of Washington, not just on the McCleary case.

"My focus will be on improving our public school system statewide, so that all students will be able to receive the education they deserve," Santos said.

Santos said she expected her committee would consider bills on closing education opportunity gaps. She wants to consider the support the state is giving to kids for whom English was not their first language.

She would like to see more training for all teachers who work with kids who are just learning English, not just for teachers in special classrooms. And she wants to take another look at creative solutions for helping Native American kids who are struggling in school.

Another education policy area that is likely to get some attention this legislative session is a collection of programs that fall under the description of Alternative Learning Experiences.

Currently, school districts are required to lump together for administrative reasons all their online learning, homeschooling and alternative programs like classes designed to bring dropouts back into the system.

Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, said it's time to split these programs up and track the students separately.

A serious of school district audits across the state reinforced the need for taking a closer look at what constitutes Alternative Learning Experiences, because so many districts seem to have difficulty keeping track of all the different programs under one heading.

Haigh, who is chair of the House appropriations subcommittee on education, said she doesn't think anyone is trying to take financial advantage intentionally.

"We've really got to look at the rules," she said.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who has been picked to be the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he's also interested in considering more than the money of the McCleary decision.

"Yes, we need to put more money in the system but we don't have unlimited money," he said. "We have to start doing things differently."

Litzow believes there is only a loose correlation between how much money is spent on education and how good the outcomes are.

Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters, agreed that money should not be used as the excuse for not reforming education, but her group does think the financial investment should be made, in part because every kid in Washington is not getting an equal education.

"We have to fund the reforms that we've already made so we can see the difference that they will make when they're implemented," Korsmo said.

Her group feels the reforms that will make a difference for all kids in Washington include all-day kindergarten, high quality early learning, better teacher training, and high academic standards to get kids ready for college and work.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn would like lawmakers to take up two additional issues this year: decreasing the burden of statewide graduation tests and changing the charter school law to put his agency in charge of the process.

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