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School debate sounds familiar


OLYMPIA – “In the year 2000, you’re going to see a different education system and it’s going to be better. We want our students to compete not just with neighboring districts, but with the world.”

That was Washington’s superintendent of public instruction – 13 years ago.

“We are competing in a fierce world economy. We need to step up to the challenge in our public schools, define our goals and hold the schools accountable.”

That was the House majority leader – 14 years ago.

“This is our last, best hope. We have a task that transcends anything else. Now is the time for action.”

That was the governor – 16 years ago.

Despite one “education governor” after another, there’s a Groundhog-Day element to this year’s calls for school reform in Olympia. Repeatedly over the past 25 years, reformers have called for an overhaul of education – often in words nearly identical to those being used now – only to be undercut by recessions, an unwillingness to raise taxes, and political and educational inertia.

This time’s different, proponents hope.

“I can understand why people are cynical,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. “But this is real. … It’s our commitment to get this under way.”

Some lawmakers are profoundly skeptical.

“I’ve got a box full of studies in my office, and nothing has changed,” says Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

But Washington can’t stand by and do nothing, Gov. Chris Gregoire says; For the sake of its children and economy, the state must turn out better-prepared students, she has said. Half of kids entering kindergarten aren’t prepared to learn, she said. More than a quarter of the state’s ninth-graders don’t graduate high school on time. And in 2005, half the students who took the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning failed the math section – a failure that Gregoire blames on the educational system, not on the students.

“It is time to make some real changes to Washington’s education system,” Gregoire said in Seattle in November, unveiling Washington Learns, the state’s latest major study of education reforms. “This is a bold plan to redesign and re-invest in education over the next decade.”

In one forum after another, she has echoed the battle cries of her education-governor predecessors: We need a 21st century educational system. We’re competing with the world. We must boost math learning. Investing in education is the wisest investment the state can make.

Yet the Washington Learns study stopped short of making one crucial recommendation. Though many school groups are calling for more state spending on schools, Washington Learns made no recommendation about where to come up with the billion dollars or more a year that school groups are calling for.

“They had the mother of all studies and they just punted,” Schoesler said.

“There’s probably been seven or eight major commissions looking at funding and all of them skip it,” said Bob Williams, president of Olympia’s conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation. “There’s a reluctance to dig down and see where the money’s really going and what really makes a difference.”

All told, Williams said, the state now spends about $10,500 per pupil, per year.

Among those disappointed that the study didn’t address how to come up with more money for schools: teachers.

“Talk is cheap,” said Charles Hasse, president of the state teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association. “It’s costly to reduce class sizes, provide individual attention, build science labs. That’s where we’ve gotten stuck in this state. We need to find the political will and get past the rhetoric.”

To that end, the state Senate has proposed a study to revamp what Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Brian Benzel has called a central problem: the funding formula that determines how much the state sends to local school districts.

Does that mean a significant tax increase for schools? Probably, proponents say.

“I don’t believe that anybody thinks that we could get this done without ultimately facing the revenue question,” Brown said. But first, she said, voters have to be able to understand what they’re paying for.

“I think we’re all ready for something that’s more clearly tied to results,” she said.

Similarly, Gregoire has said it would be a mistake to simply “throw money” at the problems in schools. Instead, she’s extended Washington Learns two years. This fall, the advisory group will propose accurate ways to measure learning. In December 2008 – a month after the next gubernatorial election – it will make funding recommendations. In the meantime, Gregoire is proposing a major boost – $1.7 billion more – for K-12 education over the next two years.

With intense public scrutiny on the high failure rates on the math and science WASL, what many people don’t realize is that the broader push to improve learning is working, said Terry Bergeson, superintendent of Public Instruction.

One reform that stuck – Gov. Booth Gardner’s 1993 statewide learning standards – shows that Washington students have risen from the middle of the pack to the top tiers when compared with other states, Bergeson said. The National Assessment of Educational Progress – a sort of national report card – lists Washington fourth in the nation, she said. Math achievement has tripled; reading has doubled. And for the past four years in a row, she said, Washington’s had the highest average SAT scores in America.

“No matter where you look, people across the country are saying ‘What is Washington doing?’ ” Bergeson said. “We have a revolution happening in our schools, but you don’t hear the positive stuff. The yammerers out there complaining about what’s not happening rule the day.”

Despite those gains, lawmakers need to provide a steadier stream of funding, she said.

“We’ve got to put more money in and we’ve got to spend it smarter,” she said. “We’re positioned to be one of the internationally leading states, but we can’t do it without the investment in education.”

Some advocates say there’s no clear link between more money and better learning.

“If more money meant a better educational system, then the Seattle school system would be the best in the state. It’s not,” said Williams, with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. “Money’s not the problem. The real question is what’s done with the money. How’s it spent efficiently and effectively? It hasn’t been.”

The keys to better learning, he argues, are high standards, strong discipline, parental involvement, merit pay for excellent teachers, parents being able to choose their children’s school and less union control over how schools are run.

Three years ago, education advocates asked voters to approve Initiative 884. It would have added a penny onto the state’s sales tax, using the money to pay for more preschools, smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay and more college scholarships, among other things. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

Nonetheless, most sides of the debate seem to agree on one thing: voters are most likely to support higher taxes for schools if they’re convinced the money will help learning.

“Look at the local levies. They’re passing,” Bergeson said. “The public understands what it’s getting for its money and they vote for it. If they just think it’s a tax increase, they’re not willing to do it.”

“The public has a feeling that money isn’t being spent wisely on education, but they don’t know what to do about it,” Williams said.


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