FDR said in 1932 that “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
With little more than a week left in its scheduled session, the Legislature is still considering legislation that could bring education reform to Washington state. Given the dire state of the economy and the complexity of the issue, Washington legislators deserve kudos for their persistence, vision, courage and above all: common sense.
Washington state’s method of defining and financing its education system is failing. Given that it hasn’t been overhauled since the 1970s, this doesn’t come as any great surprise.
The finance structure for K-12 education was in serious trouble well before the onset of the current financial crisis and economic downturn; school districts around the state have been making deep cuts for years, in many cases despite decades-long community support to fund levies, as in Spokane’s case. A handful of districts stand at the brink of insolvency and, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, more are poised to follow suit.
And what about the education this system is providing our kids? Consider these statistics, compiled by the League of Education Voters:
•After the basic education act of 1977, Washington spent 13 percent above the national average on K-12 education, and has fallen continuously since then to 13 percent below the national average in 2005-’06. Washington currently ranks 44th in the nation in K-12 spending per student.
•Fifty-two percent of community and technical college students who graduated from high school in 2006 required remedial classes in math, English or reading. Thirty-seven percent of all two- and four-year college students took remedial courses after leaving our high schools.
•Only 24 percent of Washington’s eighth-graders reported taking algebra I (41st in the nation).
•Less than half of students in Washington meet the standard on the science WASL.
•Washington ranked 46th in 2005-’07 in public school financing compared with personal income.
•Washington ranked 46th in student-teacher ratio.
•Our current system doesn’t have a line-item to finance technology in education. Washington received a ‘D-plus’ for access and use of technology in schools, according to Education Week.
For years, temporary fixes have been tried, but more of the same is not the answer. Neither is stripping away “unfunded mandates” without replacing the original intentions with a new, more comprehensive, framework. Redefining what constitutes “basic education” to reflect 21st-century sensibilities is a task that cannot be put off any longer – we’ve waited 30 years.
Our children cannot choose when it is time to craft their future. The adults need to provide a roadmap by which our children can effectively learn, in good times and in bad. The Legislature that is able to chart such a roadmap will be embodying the common-sense spirit of FDR. As he duly noted, the potential for success begins when we try something.
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