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Opinion >  Column

Chris Cargill: We need to restore faith in Washington’s public education system

How much worse do schools have to get before parents and public officials take a stand? It’s the question many are asking following the release of Washington state’s latest round of poor K-12 public school test scores.

The testing – called the Smarter Balanced Assessment – was completed last fall. The findings are heartbreaking.

The number of students failing state standards in math is now 70 percent. Across ethnic categories, the learning declines were significant.

The number of students failing state standards in English is also now 53 percent.

In a state that spends more than $16,800 per student per year, more than most private schools, how are these learning results even remotely acceptable?

The declines are sad but predictable. Politicians and executives at the state teachers union fought hard to keep schools closed for much of 2020, instead using an “online curriculum” that offered little to children across our state.

Even now – after all of the research about the safety of public schools – some unions continue to fight for the closure of classrooms because of COVID.

It is clear the biggest problem in public education is not lack of money. School funding has surged over the past 10 years, and now makes up more than half of the state’s budget. An average classroom of 20 students receives $330,000 in funding.

If it’s not money, then what ails education? Three things: lack of accountability, lack of transparency and the wrong spending priorities.

Have you heard of anyone being held accountable for K-12’s worsening results? The state superintendent of public instruction hasn’t lost his job. School boards across Washington state rarely fire a superintendent for a district’s poor educational performance. Principals are not removed, and neither are failing teachers. The unions protect their jobs at all costs.

In short, adults come first, even if children suffer.

Restoring faith in public education is also about transparency. Your local school district is supposed to work for you, not the other way around. Instead of squeezing more money out of taxpayers or shutting parents out of curriculum decisions, school leaders should be bending over backward to involve the public.

Finally, lawmakers need to demand public schools get back to academic basics.

In the last legislative session, lawmakers required K-12 teachers be trained in ‘diversity, equity and inclusion.” The title sounds harmless, but our research shows the mandate is part of controversial critical race theory. The harmful sessions did nothing to advance the educational outcomes of children. Instead, they pitted staff against each other and caused division.

How do we restore faith in public schools? State Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Walla Walla, has an idea – a parents’ bill of rights. Among its six provisions – parents should have right to review curriculum and information on who is teaching their child. Also included – requiring recording and posting of audio and video of school board meetings.

Another way to restore faith – allow more choices. Instead of families being assigned to schools by ZIP code, allow parents access to some of the money for their child’s education.

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, has introduced a bill to provide $10,000 scholarships to up to 100,000 students and their families. Scholarship funds can be used for tuition, supplies and other costs at public schools, private schools, charter schools or home-school systems.

If a local school is failing kids or refuses to open, parents can take their child and tuition elsewhere.

This idea is not partisan or even very controversial. Many states have broader learning choice programs. If parents can’t get accountability, transparency and priorities, they should be allowed access to alternatives.

If you think things can’t get worse, consider state Senate Bill 5735. It would allow “up to 20%” of instruction hours per week to be “asynchronous” based on “distance learning.” That is, more forced online classes and less in-person class time.

We have reached a point where we can either stand with parents and children, or with funding buildings, bureaucracy and a politically powerful union. For the sake of our future, let’s hope our leaders choose wisely.

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director of Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Seattle, Tri-Cities and Olympia. Online at washingtonpolicy.org. Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center, and sit on the organization’s board.

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