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Opinion >  Column

Chris Cargill: The opportunity to re-think public education is now

By Chris Cargill

Washingtonians now pay nearly $17,000 per student, per year, for K-12 public education, more than tuition at most private schools. That is more than $400,000 for a classroom of 25 students.

What are the results? The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reports most schools fail to meet the standard in teaching math (70% of students failed) and fail to meet the standard in teaching English (52% of students failed.)

More than 41,000 Washington students have left public education since the COVID-19 lockdown orders started, and more parents want change. But what change would be best?

There are nearly 300 school districts in the state of Washington – some with tens of thousands of students, some with fewer than 100. But each has its own administration, its own superintendent, and a lot of overhead. Of the $17,000 we spend per child roughly 62% gets to the classroom.

Where does the money go? Central Valley School District superintendent Ben Small recently announced he was stepping down, and in doing so, leaving behind a compensation package of more than $312,000. Superintendents of West Valley and East Valley receive more than $200,000 in total compensation, according to OSPI. The assistant superintendents in each district also make more than $200,000 per year.

Some have suggested the retirement of Small is the opportunity to think about consolidation with other valley school districts – an attempt to have smaller administrative overhead in just one office. But the larger a school district gets, the more bureaucratic it becomes.

And consolidation still doesn’t solve the main problem – that the public’s money should be funding the student, not administrators or buildings.

Consider the new Liberty Launch Academy – a private school opening in Liberty Lake this year. Its goal is to be student focused. In other words, the education experience will be built around what’s best for the children, not necessarily the adults.

The cost to attend Liberty Launch? As high as $12,000 per student, per year – an amount that might be too much for many working families.

But the true cost is much more. Why? Because Washington refuses to let the money follow the student. In other words, families in our state not only have to pay property taxes to fund traditional schools – whether they are successful or not – they also must pay separately if they want their child to get a better opportunity.

If you care about children, it’s a model that simply makes no sense.

Four bills introduced in this latest legislative session would help families find the school that is the best educational fit for their child.

HB 1633 would provide $10,000 scholarships to pay private school and homeschool expenses for each child. SB 5205 would give families $9,000 vouchers to any accredited school for each child.

Meantime, HB 1215 would give families $7,000 per child for private and homeschool expenses, with 25% of funding reserved for special needs, foster and low-income students. And HB 1555 would allow families to choose the best school, by providing $6,250 per child for private or homeschooling expenses.

Legislative leadership is blocking all these bills – every single one. As other states move to allow more school choice, Washington is holding families and children back.

It is time to try something different. The system we have is inefficient and wasteful and fails too many children. Parents can make more efficient use of these dollars, and far more kids will get a quality education.

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center. WPC is an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Seattle, Olympia and the Tri-Cities. 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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