A group started last year has 3,400 members who want to get more parents involved in solving the state's education funding problems, not just filling gaps at their schools.

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A grassroots organization is gearing up to make its voice heard during this year’s legislative session, which began Monday. Washington’s Paramount Duty started when a small group of parents met in a coffee shop to discuss what they could do to raise the level of discourse about school funding in Washington state — or, in their words, the lack of funding.

They started a Facebook group during last year’s teacher strike and, in a matter of  weeks, had about 3,000 members.  They now have about 3,400 members and a website.

We spoke with Eden Mack, a member of Paramount Duty’s steering committee, to get a better sense of how the group has developed and its goals for this legislative session.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did Washington’s Paramount Duty get its start?

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During the strike in the Seattle, there were lots of parents who got engaged in supporting teachers. Also, during that time, there seemed to be much more awareness that this wasn’t just a local issue — that a systematic funding issue was the root cause. Parents who are part of PTAs or involved locally at schools have been running themselves ragged trying to fill the gap, and then all of a sudden they realized there is something bigger going on.

So a small group of us realized this would be a good opportunity to organize folks and start to have conversation about what we could do.

There are a lot of topics in education that can be divisive and controversial and there are other groups focusing on all sorts of issues. But there wasn’t anyone focusing on this topic from a parent perspective, from a citizen perspective.

Were you surprised by how quickly the Facebook group grew? 

It was pretty surprising. I’ve been doing advocacy around education for the past couple years. When my daughter started in Seattle Public Schools a couple of years ago, the growth boundaries decisions were happening. As I started unpacking the issue, I realized ‘Whoa, this is multi-layered.’ So I took on a role with the Seattle Council PTSA as legislative chair in January 2014 and quickly came to realize that the state’s chronic under-funding of  basic education is one of the root causes of the challenges we face.

There are lots of parents who are concerned about this as well, but we’re super-crazy busy. We’ve got kids and families and jobs and a limited amount of energy. So a lot of times the energy gets focused on filling the gaps in your school. I think parents are getting fed up with the fact that this is the status of our public education system in Washington.

Eden Mack (Photo courtesy of Eden Mack.)
Eden Mack (Photo courtesy of Eden Mack.)

Can you describe the goal of Paramount Duty?
Our mission is to compel Washington State to amply fund basic education and swiftly fulfill its paramount duty. Our mission is very, very clear — and like I said before, there are lots of other groups focusing on lots of different topics, and fully funding education is a subtopic for them. We realized that the distraction of other topics continues to allow our state not to focus and meet its paramount duty.

What are your goals for the 2016 legislative session? 
First and foremost, we want all elected officials — the legislators and the governor, at a minimum — to acknowledge their constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education. We have a paramount duty resolution that very clearly — it doesn’t say how to do it — asks elected officials to say they will “promptly and fully comply with the Supreme Court’s orders in the McCleary case.”

We’re tracking who has signed it.  Not everyone has been asked yet. 

You have 3,400 people in your Facebook group. What’s your sense of who they are?  

We know we have folks from across the state and I think we have folks from all sides of the [political] spectrum. I think we have folks who are, for example, charter school supporters and folks who aren’t.

Why are legislators receiving so few calls about school funding? 

There’s a disconnect between how much the public cares about public education and the perception that our elected officials have about its importance in the public’s mind.

And part of that is because parents are so busy. That’s part of the reason the Facebook group has been so lively and engaging — because it’s an easier way to connect to the conversation.

What’s the biggest challenge in helping people who aren’t deeply embedded in the education funding debate understand the issues?

The biggest challenge we’re facing is the fact that the problem is invisible to most people. I think that’s because parents have been filling the gaps  for so long — enabling a broken funding system — that folks who aren’t directly in it don’t know how bad it is.

Our elected officials are not being fully transparent about how bad the problem really is, how much money they really are short– there’s still lots of conflicting information about the size of the gap we’re facing.

What have you learned from the Washington’s Paramount Duty community?
I’ve learned that people care about kids and public education. They care about its role in our society… not just for themselves but for our whole society.

That’s probably the thing that keeps me going — we’re all in this together. Nobody else is gonna do it, we’ve just got to do what we can to make it happen.

What’s your reaction to the education funding study bill that has been proposed?

Clearly the paramount duty for 1.1 million students is not being prioritized by the legislature, or the governor really. Here it is, the second day of the session and the chair of the education committee is discussing two bills about charter schools for 1,000 students before any discussion of the funding for 1.1 million students.

[Representative Chad]  Magendanz, R-Issaquah, said that they’re still guessing about what the costs are. But there is no guessing, they’ve already testified about what the costs are.

The plan that’s required at this stage is laying out how they’re going to fund basic education. But a plan to do a plan to do a plan, and kicking the can down the road, is totally insufficient.  The little bits of effort that they’ve done to provide additional funding over the last few years are just not enough.