August 30, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Washington, Idaho make strides in K-12 education

 

This week was a good one for K-12 education in Idaho and Washington.

In Idaho, comprehensive reform of its beleaguered system won the support of Gov. Butch Otter, who appointed a 31-member task that issued recommendations earlier this month. Their proposals include more emphasis on competency instead of grades, and school district accountability for performance along with greater local autonomy, more opportunities for teacher and administrator development, and more access to technology.

Full implementation will take a lot of money, an estimated $350 million. Just restoring state support for school districts to 2008 levels will require $82.5 million.

Minimum teacher compensation would jump almost 30 percent to $40,000. But doing nothing will encourage the exodus of teachers to states where they are paid better and not abused by legislators.

Otter knows reform will be a multiyear process. His task now is to step from cheerleader to policymaker; one who has a program of specifics he can sell to the Republican legislative caucuses. Idahoans should settle for no less if he comes asking for their votes next year.

As an aside, congratulations are due the Plummer-Worley School District, where voters passed a $1.1 million levy. The cuts and sacrifices the district has made illustrate just how much damage the skinflint Legislature has done.

A steep ascent to full K-12 funding also confronts Washington.

Tuesday, a special legislative committee delivered a progress report to the Washington Supreme Court, which in January 2012 ruled the state was falling well short of its constitutional obligation to make schools its paramount responsibility. The court retained jurisdiction in the case in order to ensure the Legislature and governor would meet that standard, as the court defines it.

As Superintendent of Education Randy Dorn defines it, lawmakers should allocate an additional $4 billion to K-12 education. The minimum he called for in the just started 2013-2015 biennium was $1.4 billion. Lawmakers came up with slightly less than $1 billion, and swept all the money out of the school construction fund to do that.

The money will do some good things, taking the burden of transportation costs entirely off districts, for example, and expanding all-day kindergarten. Still, fewer than one-half of Washington students will be able to participate.

The plaintiffs in the 2012 case now get the chance to respond, then the court will weigh in.

In the meantime, the Revenue and Forecast Council will have released new revenue projections that should reflect ongoing improvement in the state economy. Dorn is already calling for a $400 million supplemental appropriation when lawmakers gather again in January.

If projections do anticipate an increase in revenue, the state will have a hard time explaining to the justices why schools should not be first in line for more funding.

Schools in Idaho and Washington are not what they should be. The tough new Core Curriculum will likely underscore the work yet to be done. But Otter’s embrace of his task force’s recommendations, and the turnaround underway in Washington, are good news as students start the new academic year.

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