As the first person in my family to go to college, I’m one of the millions of stories of how a good education changes lives. Today, however, education in Washington is in trouble, because we don’t have an education system. We have a collection of agencies that deal with education. Our students, families and taxpayers deserve better now.
This is the most globally competitive economic period in history, and the U.S. is far from No. 1 in the world in educating our students. Countries like Taiwan, Canada, France, the Czech Republic and Slovenia outperform us. With nothing more important to our economic success than education, we must get serious about reform.
Washington has eight education agencies. These different groups operate in silos, without coordination or systemwide accountability. There is not enough focus on students; instead there is focus on turf and tradition. They identify and analyze problems but can’t push through the layers of bureaucracy to solve them.
For example, universities report year after year that many high school students don’t enter freshman year with the skills to succeed. But no one has the responsibility and authority to fix the issue, because the Department of Early Learning oversees and advises on early learning issues; the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, State Board of Education, Professional Educator Standards Board, Washington State School Directors’ Association and Office of the Education Ombudsman focus on kindergarten through 12th grade education; and the Higher Education Coordinating Board and state Board of Community and Technical Colleges deal with higher education.
This structure is the product of a century of creation, not what we would build if we were to start from scratch. Simply keeping the status quo in place because it’s the way we’ve always done things isn’t an option.
I’ve proposed a single department of education. A department will break down the silos and build a seamless education system that focuses on students, not silos. One unified plan would guide students on their educational path and unite the system around a single goal: preparing students to succeed in school and life in the global economy.
We know the problems, and we know we’re not meeting the needs of students. A recent pilot program showed 61 percent of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch didn’t have the language, communication and literacy skills for success in kindergarten. For the 2004-’05 cohort of first-time, full-time freshman students at Washington’s public institutions, just 40 percent graduated within four years (the lowest rate was 21 percent and the highest rate was 53 percent).
Some want to defend the status quo, even though it isn’t working. Some claim we can’t improve education until more money is available, but this is a false choice. Our schools do need more funding, but money alone won’t solve the problems. A seamless education system will save money and improve education.
Replacing the education bureaucracy with a department of education will start saving the state about $500,000 a year. Due to our fractured system, every year taxpayers pay more for students who fall behind, retake grades and grow discouraged. We’re currently spending at least $100 million for students who enter kindergarten not prepared to succeed, for students who repeat grades, for students who aren’t prepared to transition from middle school to high school, and for students who enter college and take remedial courses.
We do students and ourselves no favors by standing still. The time for action is now. Our students can’t wait. A department of education would create a seamless education system that will help students succeed in school and in life.