While Washington state has embarked on aggressive reform adventures, the formula for funding basic education has remained largely unchanged for more than 30 years. Oh, it’s been studied … and studied … and studied, but as time has passed, fewer people could even explain the archaic metrics used to divvy up money for the state’s paramount constitutional duty. In the meantime, local levy dollars have been tapped to cover the basics.
That’s about to change, because bipartisan bills have been introduced in Olympia that reflect the findings of the state’s basic education task force. The proposed revisions are dramatic, but that’s a function of myriad delays. Put simply, the state has slipped way behind and catching up will be expensive. If fully implemented, the state could see a 50 percent increase in education funding by 2017. The changes should ease the pressure on local levies, but the overall price tag will still be enormous.
The task force has acknowledged this by calling for changes to start in the 2011-’12 school year and to be phased in over six years. That is necessary anyway given the scope of the changes, but it also gives the economy a chance to rebound.
With a huge gulp, we endorse most of the proposed changes but urge lawmakers to dig deeper for ways to cut costs. Particularly worthy are:
•Changes in teacher compensation. The task force called teacher quality the most important factor and has called for new pay and preparation models. The current model rewards teachers for advanced degrees. Research contradicts the idea that those degrees lead to better student outcomes. The new model would focus on more intensive training and review of teachers, with “master teachers” reviewing their peers’ work. Incentives would be added to lure harder-to-find teachers, such as those in math, science and special education. Plus, pay would be adjusted based on prevailing regional wages.
•Adoption of “Core 24.” Students would need 24 credits, rather than 19. This would better position them for college and apprenticeship and job training programs. This increased standard for graduation is long overdue in a state that has been slow to respond to the challenges posed by the changing global economy. To ensure that all students have a shot at achieving the higher credit total, early learning has been added to the basic education definition. This means that 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families would be given the opportunity to attend prekindergarten classes to close the readiness gap between them and their peers.
•Funding that aligns with goals. Core 24 cannot be attained without the state paying for six periods of school. Currently, it funds five, with local districts picking up the cost if they offer a sixth class. Special education, English language learning and extra help for struggling students would also be paid for by the state. More teachers would be hired overall to ensure smaller class sizes.
An area of potential concern is that the task force called for no changes in the collective bargaining process, although task force Chairman Dan Grimm asserted in a minority report that the state could better accomplish the mission if it had more control over negotiations with unions. Indeed, if local districts continue this function, the new compensation system may be more difficult to adopt. Richer districts will still be able to retain the better teachers by supplementing their pay, which undermines a merit-based system. But putting bargaining in the governor’s hands is an extreme step that requires more study.
Other than that, the studying is over. Lawmakers now have concrete recommendations to consider. We can’t afford to wait another year for decisions.
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