The question going around is: Why do our schools lag behind those in the similar state of Massachusetts? There’s a one-word answer: leadership.
This newspaper just ran a revealing series of articles asking the question, “Why are Massachusetts’ schools so much better than ours?”
The articles, by Claudia Rowe, explored a number of reasons why schools in two financially and demographically similar states might turn out differently. They spend more money than we do, for example, and they use it on stuff that works: preschool, more teacher training, and more enrichment and special vocational classes.
It was a hard series of articles to read. These actions are low-hanging fruit. Massachusetts made good use of the past 20 years. We mostly didn’t.
But it was another story, alongside this series, that to me illustrated what our Big Problem really is. It was an update on another interminable quagmire in our state capital, headlined “State lawmakers split over when to give teachers a raise.”
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Our legislative ditherers are in their sixth special session in the past seven years. Their differences come down to how to spend about $200 million in a small revision to the two-year, $38.2 billion budget approved last year.
That’s right: They are in shutdown over 0.5 percent of the budget.
A fraction of that squabble is that the Democrats want to try to end a teacher shortage by raising starting teachers’ pay, from $35,700 to $40,000. The Republicans counter that this might not help pull in new teachers, and in any case should be put off until some later date.
But buried in the story was that the Legislature itself appointed a group way back in 2009 to work on this exact issue. It was part of our own supposedly landmark school-reform effort. This commission hired employment consultants, bored into the depths of public and private labor markets and issued its findings, in 2012.
Its main take-away was that thirty-five grand to teach 150 kids per day is cripplingly low. Duh, as they say in middle school. It’s barely more than you’d make cleaning carpets at $15 an hour — which in Seattle is soon to be the minimum possible wage for anyone.
The state better start boosting starting teacher pay dramatically, up to $49,000, this commission said. Or else our schools won’t attract top talent and will slog along in mediocrity.
This finding was utterly ignored. Here it is four years later, and our political leaders are hunkered down in Olympia, fighting about whether to bump the salaries to an amount nearly 20 percent less than what was urged back then.
It isn’t just a problem of money. I agree with what a business leader said in one of the Massachusetts stories, that “How the money is spent matters a great deal.” After years of talking about making schools better, there’s still no coherent plan. Even widely accepted recommendations get ignored due to poor follow-through, or go unfunded due to rigid “no-new-taxes” pledges, or get outcompeted by faddish distractions such as the fight over charter schools.
The Big Problem, then, is leadership failure. It starts at the top, with Gov. Jay Inslee. His no-new-taxes pledge during his 2012 campaign, which he later flip-flopped on, has crippled his entire term. Senate Republicans stick slavishly to their no-taxes mantra but have never proposed a real plan for mending the K-12 schools without new revenue. Then there’s the state teachers union, highly energetic at suing and striking but less so at offering positive ideas on what better schools might look like.
Add it up, and for a state under a court order to fix its schools, there’s a damning lack of urgency.
“We talk about how great we are, and have all these aspirations, but we don’t back up what we say,” was one quote from the stories.
Ouch. Plenty of schools in this state are doing fine, almost despite the big picture. But we ought to be better than this.
I don’t know, maybe shame can be a powerful motivator. Maybe this can be a turning point of sorts, a moment that some reporter will look back on 20 years from now, as one of ours just did for another state, as the period Washington finally got its collective act together about supporting and improving its schools.
Barring that miracle, though, can we please just copy Massachusetts?