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We’re failing in our commitment to education

Sat., March 30, 2013

For a bunch of supposedly smart adults, we’re acting pretty dumb about education.

It’s not the way we like to think of ourselves, here in the Evergreen State. After all, we have that constitutional mandate to provide for education as our top priority, right? It’s a budget thorn right now, but it reflects a pro-education agenda that allows us to congratulate ourselves and feel superior. All pro-education-y.

Our adult population is among the nation’s best-educated. Top 10. That’s where we rank nationwide in the number of residents who have an associate’s degree or better.

Top 10, baby.

And yet our commitment to educating the next generation is lousy. Bottom 5 – in category after category.

For example, the chances that a Washington ninth-grader will go on to enroll in college by age 19 are 35 percent, according to a Seattle Times crunching of federal and state data last year. That’s 46th in the nation. We’re also 46th for the proportion of high school graduates who enroll directly in college, at about half. Thirty percent of the population age 18 to 24 is enrolled in college. In that category, we’re 47th.

Bottom 5, baby. Backwater city.

For many, this is simply a sign that our schools are failing us. Some Republicans in Olympia have decided the thing to do about this is hang scarlet letters on schools – give them F’s! That’ll teach em!

But we’re the ones – we adults, we citizens, we supposedly smart ones – who are failing.

When it comes to how much we spend on schools relative to our income, we’re 49th. That’s according to recent rankings published by the League of Education Voters, a Seattle organization that supports a range of improvements and investments in public schools. In Washington, we spent about $35.07 per $1,000 of personal income on education in 2009-10. The national average is $43.43.

We’re Number 49! Only Florida puts less of its money where its mouth is. Idaho spends close to $40.

Our commitment to higher ed is slightly less bad – but that’s just because all states are racing harder to see who can underfund college more. In 2011-12, Washington residents put $4.74 per $1,000 of state income toward our colleges, which puts us at 38th in the nation. Idaho spent more than $6 per thousand.

Is this how we think of ourselves? Do we understand how much we’re slipping? I imagine most of us don’t, and it’s because we haven’t always been the backwater we’re currently striving to be. While the state has enshrined tax avoidance as our single most important goal, we have – year after year – contributed less to schools and higher ed, or taken any contributions out of the hides of other services.

This savings will be costly, and the current tug-of-war in the Legislature between higher ed and K-12 – between how many millions to cut elsewhere to direct to schools – merely illustrates the paucity of our commitment.

Naturally, some people think we spend too much on schools. The truth is, in this country, when we really care about something – when we really want something to be excellent, and are not simply pretending that we want something to be excellent – we pay for it. That’s why you never hear anyone arguing that, say, we shouldn’t improve the WSU football team by throwing money at it.

No, when the goal is real, and not pretense, we throw money.

In 2008-09, Washington spent $9,329 per pupil on K-12 education, based on an analysis that included adjustments for regional cost variations. You sometimes hear people use similar figures to suggest that public education is crazily, wildly expensive, that school funding is plentiful, that perhaps, just possibly, the problem is too much money.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has ordered us to put our money where our mouths are. We shouldn’t envy our lawmakers this task, as they operate under a court order to do a better job of paying for school while facing a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.

I suspect one of the potential obstacles here – one of the things that keeps us from really believing that we’re falling short – is our failure to understand just the truth about our state when it comes to education funding. We take certain things for granted – that we believe in and support excellent schools – that are demonstrably not true.

Very few states spend less per pupil than we do. We’re 40th in the league’s analysis, nearly $2,000 per pupil behind the national average.

Not so hot, in other words. Unless your goal is to spend the least on education.

In that case, we’re top 10.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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