It’s decision time for education in Washington state. The present system is both underfunded and underperforming. The state ranks low nationally in K-12 funding and ranks 47th when it comes to the chance that a student from Washington will be attending college by age 19.
We have these failings while, at the same time, we have one of the most knowledge-intensive economies in the nation. We have thousands of well-paying jobs for those with the right skills. But as a state we tend to import talent at such high rates the good jobs frequently go to the well-educated from elsewhere.
This legislative session presents a historic opportunity to make things right for the children and families of our state. But it also offers great temptation for partisan fighting and politics as usual. Our representatives will be tested much in the way we expect good performance from our students. Below are a few of the “test questions” the legislators will face and my thoughts on right answers.
Question: Should money for education be added only to the K-12 system?
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Answer: No. Funding and focus must span cradle through college.
We must build a great early learning system and keep on going through quality, accessible higher education. Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget was a solid step in this direction. However, one thing left out is adequate investment in the State Need Grant. The Legislature should choose differently. Last year, 34,000 students met the income test to qualify for financial aid for college only to find the aid coffers drained. As a state in which two-thirds of the jobs by 2018 will require a postsecondary degree or a career credential, we must open up access to higher education and give our colleges what they need to operate.
Question: Are existing state tax collections going to be enough to do the job?
Answer: No. New revenue will be needed to fund our key education and community priorities.
The governor’s proposal is a good starting point for the revenue negotiations that will ensue. People might not like his exact proposals — if so, they should offer others. The business community in particular needs to get into the revenue discussions. They know our economic future depends on a skilled workforce.
The governor’s revenue plan omits a major component, one that is called for by the state Supreme Court: putting an end to the overreliance on school district levies. It is the state’s job to fund basic education with tax dollars collected by the state, not local school districts. This may seem minor, but it is not.
In 2013, districts with local levies brought in more than $2 billion — significant when you consider the state’s annual K-12 investment is about $7.5 billion. The Legislature can fix this by voting to curtail the amount of local taxes that can be collected by a school district and then raise the state amount. To be sure, fully funding education will take more than this element, but it is important that we do this “swap” of tax collectors (from local school districts to the state) because of the legal principles involved and because we can’t afford to ignore $2 billion.
Question: Should increased investments be expected to yield significant improvement in education results?
Answer: Yes. It is critical that we get better results for every dollar invested — especially for low-income students and students of color.
As new money begins to be added it is critical that our representatives be crystal clear on the intended results. Goals such as being ready for kindergarten, reading by the end of the third grade, mastering the fundamentals of math and science, graduating from high school ready for college success and earning a career credential or a college degree are the goals we must achieve. The system incentives and accountability mechanisms must reinforce the priority goals.
The Legislature should prioritize investments that would help close opportunity gaps. It would be a travesty to end up with a well-funded education system that remains grossly underperforming for students of color. The legacy of the McCleary decision should be one of advancing equity.
Getting the answers right this session will be hard: No one said the test would be easy. Choosing what is best for students will require big shifts in big things — in how collective bargaining gets done, how teacher compensation is structured, how innovation is encouraged, how concentrated poverty is addressed, how success is rewarded and how poor performance is corrected. Hundreds of hard decisions need to be made by the Legislature.
So, as the session gets under way, take a minute to remind your favorite legislator to study hard, eat a good breakfast and get some sleep. This is test time, and the stakes for the children of this state could not be higher.
Mary Jean Ryan is executive director of The Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit which supports the regional Road Map Project.