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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

If students aren’t learning, who’s to blame?

Whom do you hold responsible for the problems Washington schools have graduating kids who can read, write, calculate and be intellectually flexible enough to have a dozen careers before they retire?

Put another way, whom do you blame for the fact that nearly one kid in three doesn’t graduate from high school, and among those who do, some go to college thinking a hypotenuse is one of animals in tutus in “Fantasia” or a dependent clause is a dead-beat relative?

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Gov. Chris Gregoire believes you hold her responsible. Because of that, she wants to reorganize the state’s many and varied offices, agencies and programs that have anything to do with education, whether it’s teaching toddlers their numbers or awarding doctorates in astrophysics. They’d all be in one department, headed by the secretary of education, who would report to a governor the voters could hold accountable at elections.

Randy Dorn, the superintendent of public instruction, thinks you hold him responsible. He’s not fond of the governor’s plan, not the least of which because it would either do away with his job entirely, or have a constitutionally elected official reporting to the education czar or czarina appointed by the governor.

At a hearing on Gregoire’s education reorganization plan last week, Dorn made a pretty strong empirical point that the voters are more likely to blame education deficiencies on the state school superintendent. After all, if voters believed schools needed fixing in 2008, they didn’t kick her out of office but did dump his predecessor, Terry Bergeson.

I found myself torn by this debate, because when my youngest was struggling with fractions, I was sure it was Mike Lowry’s responsibility to explain numerators and denominators. But when my oldest got a day of detention, I immediately blamed Bergeson.

The fact is, voters are, by statute, adults. If we act like adults, we probably realize the state offers a wide array of education institutions, programs and policies that aren’t perfect, but are better and more numerous than we had as children, which were better and more numerous than our parents had as children. The system isn’t perfect and the state can move those institutions into different silos, tweak programs or rewrite polices to improve things on the margins. Maybe the persons to be held most responsible for failures as well as successes in the education system, is us – or at least the subset of us sending those kids to school – not some elected or appointed official in Olympia.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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