From Seattle to Selah, we heard frustration and anger from parents and taxpayers who feel like the state isn’t taking its paramount duty seriously and that their children miss out as a result.
THROUGHOUT October, I traveled hundreds of miles across our state with my Senate colleagues, listening to educators, school staff members, parents and students who shared their stories about a crumbling education infrastructure — from teacher shortages to classrooms unfit for quality learning.
There were plenty of tears and more than a few people raised their voices in frustration. It’s understandable — these are people who live everyday with the impacts directly caused by the state’s failure to fully fund our schools.
While legislative colleagues joined us along the way, a bipartisan group of four senators attended all seven meetings, including state Sens. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and me. We stopped in Yakima, Everett, Bremerton, Renton, Spokane, Wenatchee and Vancouver. In all, more than 1,300 Washingtonians took the time to attend and hundreds stood to describe the common and unique challenges facing their schools.
Public education listening tour
This fall state Senate education leaders visited seven cities across Washington and listened to hundreds of stories from people impacted by the financial challenges facing our state’s public education system. The stories represent opinions from parents and educators from Vancouver, Bremerton, Everett, Renton, Spokane, Yakima and Wenatchee. To listen, go to: seati.ms/education-listening-tour
At every stop, I heard a consistent call to action by parents and education advocates who hope the Legislature can find the will to ensure that every child has the opportunity for a quality education, no matter where they live.
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Here are some stories that were shared:
• In Yakima: Martha Rice, president of the Yakima School Board, described how the school year started with 31 teacher vacancies, which created chaos and confusion for hundreds of students and parents. Principals and scarce long-term substitutes stepped in to fill the holes, but 15 classrooms still remained without a permanent teacher.
• In Everett: With the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in his district, Lance Gibbon, superintendent of Oak Harbor Public Schools, explained how the state’s current funding structure leaves his teachers with the lowest salaries in their area. About half the student body is military-connected and a significant amount of surrounding property is untaxable federal land. If the Legislature doesn’t act, Lance told us, “We are going to have to figure out how to cut programs, cut staff, cut support for our students in order to provide for our teachers, and that’s wrong.”
• In Bremerton: Whitney Meissner, principal at Chimacum High School, said teacher recruiting is such a challenge that two of her classrooms still have substitutes nearly three months into the school year. She’s also spent two years trying to find a certified Spanish teacher. “The reality is they go other places and make more money,” she said.
• In Renton: Calyn, a military spouse with an autistic son, said she and her husband sought out Joint Base Lewis-McChord for its pediatric services. Expecting the same level of service in the area’s schools, she was surprised to wait months to get her son the services he needed and was disheartened when his needs could not be addressed. We heard similar stories at every stop — underfunding of basics like salaries leaves a shortage of teachers and resources needed for kids who have special needs. She got to the heart of the issue when she said, “There is a high cost to families when we don’t fund public education.”
• In Spokane: Scott Carruth, a parent and School Board member from Ritzville, explained that he makes the 150-mile round-trip drive to the Spokane Valley twice a week to get his son the special instruction and tools he needs to learn. He said parents in Ritzville want the same instruction Spokane schools offer, but the district simply doesn’t have the money. And a school administrator from Selkirk spoke about the dire teacher shortage in rural areas, saying he’s seen a deer, an elk and a bear on the campus this year, but not a fourth-grade teacher.
Common to every community, from Seattle to Selah, is frustration and anger from parents and taxpayers who feel like the state isn’t taking its paramount duty seriously, and that their children miss out as a result. As a legislator and parent of two children attending public school, I share that frustration.
Progress has been slow. After months of work, senators from both parties agree that a minimum $3.5 billion is needed to update our antiquated education-funding structure. There isn’t consensus, however, regarding the source of new revenue. And there are some Republican leaders who deny that this fundamental education crisis exists, even though the state Supreme Court is penalizing the Legislature $100,000 a day for failing to come up with long-term funding solutions.
I am grateful to the hundreds of people who offered their personal stories and ideas. From every corner of our state, we heard from people who expect us to listen and to work as one united team, irrespective of our political parties, to fund our schools.
I’m listening and ready to act. I know many of my colleagues are too.