By Victor Skinner

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has signed legislation designed to strengthen the state’s school accountability system.

school accountabilityThe new law lays out a framework for identifying and turning around the state’s worst performing public schools by focusing on closing the achievement gap, improving mathematics and reading or language arts achievement, and improving graduation rates.

The law also requires public school employee unions to reopen collective bargaining agreements if necessary to implement school turnaround efforts. The new law tasks the state superintendent with helping low-achieving schools implement suitable action plans to ensure they improve academics. Possible types of action plans, based on federal recommendations, include implementing targeted changes, replacing school staff, conversion to a charter school, or school closure.

If struggling schools fail to improve, the new law gives the state superintendent the authority to intercede or shut down the school, media reports and the legislation shows.

The new rules seem logical, but much of the system will rely on a “Washington achievement index” the state plans to use to grade schools in the future. By November, the state board must develop “an accountability framework that creates a unified system of support for challenged schools that aligns with basic education, increases the level of support based on the magnitude of need,  and uses data for decisions,” according to the bill.

The legislation states the state superintendent must then “design a comprehensive system of specific strategies for recognition, provision of differentiated support and targeted assistance, and, if necessary, requiring intervention in schools and school districts,” and present the system to the board by January 1, 2014.

The measure requires the state to implement the accountability system no later than the 2014-15 school year.

The state’s teachers union hates the new rules because they require the union to modify collective bargaining agreements to help students learn, though the bill does provide an appeal and resolution process for union/management disputes.

We suspect unions in many low performing districts will use the appeals process to resist changes that put student learning above the union’s financial interests. We also suspect union officials will attempt to water down the accountability system through the public state school board process in the coming months.

Washington residents would be wise to watch closely as the new changes are implemented, and be prepared to call the teachers union out for interference if union leaders try to steer the process in their favor.

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