These days George Scarola, the legislative director for the League of Education Voters, spends his time wandering the halls of Olympia trying to scare up money for education funding. It is dispiriting work. Legislators, keenly aware of the state's ugly fiscal condition--the current biennial budget shortfall is projected at $2.2 billion--are reluctant to advocate new spending, which would all but necessitate a tax increase. But Scarola perseveres, because he believes that without additional revenues the state is heading for a nasty head-on collision with the school system's most glaring problem beginning next year. It can be summed up in two words: the WASL.

Successful completion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which tests students in reading, writing and math, is a graduation requirement for the class of 2008, who begin taking the exam as 10th graders next year. Most legislators and education advocates agree that setting minimum graduation standards is a good idea. But here's the problem: Currently only 39 percent of the students who take the WASL pass all three fields. Everyone agrees that is unacceptably low. If that number does not rise significantly, education advocates worry privately that there is likely to be a major backlash against the exam, particularly as middle-class suburban parents with political clout discover their children are at risk of being denied a high-school diploma.

But consensus ends when it comes to figuring out what to do about the problem. Generally, while Democrats want to invest more money in education, Republicans are resistant, saying that more funding will not solve the state's education problems. They argue, instead, that the system needs fundamental reforms to make it more efficient and more responsive to local needs.

That won't do much for the current crop of students facing the graduation hurdle posed by the exam. Rep. Ross Hunter (D-Bellevue), a member of the House Education Committee who has made educational issues a personal focus, points out that pass rates will almost certainly rise as students realize their graduation will depend on passing the test, although the numbers will still be low, particularly for poor and minority students. "We look at the pass rates and we're terrified. That is giving people some heartache," he says. He adds, "We're heading for a very big 'aha' moment."

Democratic legislators like Hunter believe funding two voter initiatives suspended during the last budget crunch in 2003, I-728 and I-732, which reduce class sizes and raise teacher pay respectively, would begin to address the WASL failure rate. I-728 in particular allows money to be targeted for extended learning--things like summer school and after-school tutoring--that could help kids having difficulties passing the exam. They also think more funding for the state's learning assistance program (LAP), which targets poor children, is needed.

But that will cost real money. I-728 will require $138 million in the current budget, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson has proposed $190 million over the next two years for LAP, as part of her call for an overall education-budget increase of $878 million.

"I would call it a crisis," says freshman state Senator Brian Weinstein (D-Mercer Island), who serves on the Early Learning, K-12 & Higher Education Committee, and who campaigned on improving the state's education system. The solutions, including greater remedial instruction, "all cost money." He adds, "I don't want to sit here and just say, 'No, no, no, no.' It's a bleak picture out there."

Hunter and Weinstein are offering companion bills in the legislature calling for a systemic study of the state's education funding, a proposal that Weinstein jokes is popular with legislators in part because "they do not have to spend money while the study is being done." After attending a conference on education funding last weekend, Hunter jokes that he learned "how you do a little magic dance and, like manna from heaven, you get $2 billion a year."

The idea of increasing taxes, even for education, is a political minefield, especially after I-884--which would have raised $1 billion per year for education by raising the state sales tax--went down in a lopsided defeat last November, 60 percent to 40 percent.

There is little support for lowering WASL standards. Superintendent Bergeson, a strong supporter of the WASL requirement, won reelection last November over former superintendent Judith Billings, a critic of the exam. But some legislators are also considering reforming WASL requirements to give students more flexibility in meeting the graduation requirement. State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell), chair of the Senate Early Learning, K-12 & Higher Education Committee, has a bill that would create alternative mechanisms for students who have failed the WASL twice. McAuliffe stresses that the alternative assessments will be at least as rigorous as those included in the WASL. "We certainly do not ever intend to lower standards," she says.

Conservatives contend the real problem is not a lack of money but a dysfunctional system that wastes the resources it has. Marsha Richards, director of the Education Reform Center at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, marshals statistics that show that while per-pupil spending rose 16.5 percent and class sizes declined from 19.6 to 17.8 students between 1993 and 2003, graduation rates nonetheless fell, from 77 percent in 1991 to 67 percent in 2003. She contends that too much money is currently wasted on things like bilingual education, which she describes as a "sham program" that fails to lead to the mainstreaming of about 90 percent of participating students.

Rep. Fred Jarrett, a moderate Republican from Mercer Island, contends that it may be possible to come up with a plan that combines real reform with greater funding. He says he is talking up pilot reform projects that would allow local districts to access a designated pool of money, perhaps $500 million, to test out ideas they believe might improve their students' performance. The ones that succeed, he says, could then be replicated statewide.

Jarrett admits that selling his Republican colleagues, primarily focused on avoiding tax hikes, on increased educational funding is not easy. He says he puts the issue to them in business-oriented terms. "When have you gotten a return without making an investment?" he says he asks them.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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