Washington state must embrace a new vision for education

A new vision for education

In Washington state, it is time to retire the term “K-12.” That shorthand for the kindergarten through 12th-grade system is so 20th century. The 21st-century ideal of the state’s role in educating citizens should be to start earlier and stay with it longer. The state should see its duty as helping to educate young people from ages 3 to 23.

The state’s education system should be as healthy, nimble and fully powered as the expectations of the economy and job market.

The current K-12 approach is more ambitious than what was originally envisioned by the state’s founders when they embedded state-funding imperatives in the state constitution. But, during the summer of 1889, the elected delegates embraced the value of the state’s role in funding education though wisely left it open-ended. Here are the key points in Article IX, Sections 1 and 2:

Our forebears saw the state’s role as preparing young people for an agrarian economy and emerging industrial society.

That vision had to evolve. Today’s economy and its dependence on   skilled workers who have familiarity with technology requires at least some postsecondary education.

The state founders were on to something. A good education benefits individuals and society.

Now state leaders and citizens must recommit to this value so Washington has the best public-education system in America. This is essential and it is achievable, thanks to the vision of the state’s founders and many of our state leaders over the past 123 years.

But, the state has veered from its path, and now has been rebuked twice by the state’s high court.

In 1978, the state Supreme Court affirmed a Thurston County Superior Court ruling that state funding for K-12 education was inadequate. Justices warned about the growing reliance on voter-approved school levies and ordered lawmakers to define basic education and find a way to pay for it without relying on local levies.

In January, the Supreme Court again highlighted deficits in state funding in its McCleary v. Washington ruling and ordered the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional obligations. This time the order came with a deadline, 2018, and required reports back to the court.

But subsequent debate among policy makers has gone off track in two ways. First, it is too focused on more money as the only solution rather than reforms that improve performance. Second, it has been too narrowly focused on kindergarten through high school, rather than a more holistic vision for education. In fact, the state Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling seemed to encourage a broader approach.

“The program of basic education is not etched in constitutional stone,” Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the majority. “The Legislature has an obligation to review the basic education program as the needs of students and the demands of society evolve.”

“Basic education” is not a constitutional mandate but rather a legislative construct. It must be redefined to include early education and higher education. Furthermore, the K-12 system should be reformed to more realistically reflect what is affordable in an uncertain world, nation and state economy.

Already legislators face a   projected $1 billion budget shortfall for the 2013-15 biennium. Another year of deficits certainly puts limits on how much, and how quickly, they can improve education spending.

Here’s a simple plan for the short-term: Establish a benchmark. Keep education spending at current levels. About 54 percent of the state general fund goes to education now: 44 percent for the K-12 system, 9 percent for higher education and less than 1 percent for early learning. This should be the bare minimum in the next biennial budget. When state revenues stabilize, then invest even more.

The spirit of our state Constitution requires a long-term commitment to using reforms, efficiencies and eventually a larger percentage of the state’s general fund.


K-12: Reforms and Money

Washington state is failing too many of its 1million public-school children. Despite an on-time graduation rate of 76.6 percent for the class of 2011, overall nearly one in four students do not graduate on time. Of those  who do, too many are unprepared for college-level work.

More than half of high-school graduates enrolling in the state’s community and technical colleges end up in remedial classes, typically for math. Remediation rates vary widely at the state’s four-year baccalaureate institutions, but on average up to 25 percent of those students need at least one remedial course.

Debate about K-12 education after the McCleary decision focuses too narrowly on money. Figuring out how   public schools can serve students more effectively is just as central to the education-reform conversation.

Money does matter. The   potential to more effectively spend the $13.6 billion allocated for the K-12 system in the 2011-13 biennium must guide the work of a new state finance task force established in the wake of the McCleary ruling. The K-12 Finance Task Force operates under a budget proviso that it first consider no new revenue options and that it propose specific ideas for new funding from existing revenue streams.

Moving forward requires governance changes.  Lawmakers can start by   giving school principals the ability to choose teachers. The current system favors seniority and other factors to assign teachers to schools. The system allows some teachers with subpar performances to avoid detection by simply transferring to another school, even if the principal at the new school does not want them.

If principals are to be held accountable for school performance, they need stronger authority but with checks and balances. The innovative Seattle Public Schools’ teacher contract tries to get at this problem by requiring some teachers  on  improvement plans to stay in their current assignments.

Another problem is the stubbornly high dropout rate. The Office of  Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) must lead the charge on this, particularly in the 15 high schools known statewide as “dropout factories,” where no more than 60 percent of freshmen graduate.

Solutions could include changing school leadership or remaking the school’s budget to spend more on interventions. First OSPI must be given the authority to intervene.

Lawmakers must also make changes in the new teacher-evaluation law to ensure school districts live up to both its spirit and intent. Washington’s 295 districts are   negotiating with local unions over how much test scores and other indicators of student growth will play in measuring teachers. This is a recipe for uneven application of an important law.

Washington has had some success boosting academic performance, but not enough to stem the widening gap between education opportunities for white students and those for minority and low-income students.

The so-called innovation schools, hailed as a version of charter schools, serve largely white, suburban populations, leaving the challenges of struggling students unaddressed. To cure that omission, voters should approve Initiative 1240, creating a pilot program that could authorize 40 charter public schools over five years.

The McCleary decision is  not about a dollar amount. It is about embracing a higher level of education programs and services. Reforms offer the smarter investment in some cases.   For example, investing in teacher training and better use of technology has a greater chance of improving academic achievement than merely adding a billion to the budget.

In 2009, the Legislature advanced this thinking with House Bill 2261, which broadened basic education to include all-day kindergarten, advanced studies and other academic programs tied to student success.

Long-term, the bulk of education spending will come from the state, making the case for lawmakers to begin exerting more control. Of course, defenders of the status quo will not like this.


Early learning a key investment

Two objectives are critical to the future of education: lowering the   high-school dropout rate and preparing more students for college and careers. Key to success in both is educating children earlier.

The path begins with 3- and 4-year-olds. Neuroscience research leaves no doubt about the wisdom of investing in early-childhood education. Much of brain development occurs before children turn 5.

Students who have participated in high-quality early-learning programs do better in math and reading, have higher graduation rates and enter the workforce with higher skill levels and higher potential earnings.

Washington’s efforts are channeled through the   state-funded Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) which has served Washington children from low-income families for 25 years.

ECEAP works as far as it goes. But not enough children who need it are being served. There were only 8,391 slots available for the 2011-12 academic year, resulting in a waiting list of 3,347 kids. The same number of slots will be available this year. A total of 19,000 children statewide qualify for ECEAP but are not being served.

The National Institute for Early Education Research ranked Washington’s early-learning programs near the top in the nation for quality. But when it comes to access, the state drops to near the bottom.

The state Department of Early Learning is using part of a $60 million Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant to enroll more at-risk children in quality programs.

The Legislature should prioritize funding more ECEAP slots. Early learning pays off in the educational system and in our economy.


Shore up higher ed for economy

Washington’s universities and colleges have borne the brunt of state budget cuts in recent years, in large part because lawmakers have not considered higher education to have the constitutional protection the K-12 system has enjoyed.

That is outdated thinking and a false economy.

If the state wants to provide more opportunities for its own young citizens and support the growth of well-paying high-tech jobs, the higher-education infrastructure must be robust. That means, research universities and graduate programs that are world-class, exceptional baccalaureate programs that are affordable and accessible, community colleges that cater to their local economy’s urgent business needs and offer job training and retraining that gets, and keeps, people employed.

In a study released in August, the Brookings Institution affirmed what many of Seattle’s high-tech employers have been highlighting for years. The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue region has sizable gaps in how much education its workers have and how much education job openings require.

Last year, the area had 6.2 openings for jobs that typically require a bachelor’s degree for every unemployed worker with a degree, according to The Conference Board, a nonprofit that tracks employment and education trends. But for unemployed people with a high-school diploma or less, there were only 1.8 job openings they might qualify for.

That translates to Boeing, Microsoft and other employers having to recruit workers from out of state and out of country to fill their job openings. Despite the region’s business success, there remains a cost when so many of our young people are left behind educationally. Regions with fewer educated people tend to lag behind in key economic indicators, including entrepreneurs who start or expand businesses. Fewer new businesses mean fewer jobs overall and less support for higher education.

The grave disservice is to our own young citizens who can’t get into state schools because there is no room, they are not prepared or they have been priced out of college by soaring tuition.

Students have been taxed mightily in this economic recession as resident undergraduate tuition rates have soared.   As the Legislature slashed state funding, universities have made up some of the cuts through increased tuition. Over the past five years, resident undergraduate tuition has increased by 77 percent at Eastern Washington University and by 107 percent at the University of Washington.

State support of student financial aid was increased to help low-income students, but the steep tuition hikes squeeze middle-class families.

College completion leads to higher wages and better job stability. The unemployment rate for people with a high-school diploma or less is three times higher than for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Washington’s public community colleges and universities do an excellent job educating the students they enroll. This state ranks No. 1 in the rate of freshmen and comunity-college students receiving baccalaureate degrees.

Not enough high school graduates in Washington aspire to college. Washington ranks in the bottom third of states in the number of bachelor’s degrees produced relative to the state population.