A great deal of ink has been dedicated to Seattle Public Schools lately. Any seasoned public servant knows that controversies come and go...
A great deal of ink has been dedicated to Seattle Public Schools lately. Any seasoned public servant knows that controversies come and go, but it is deeply troubling to me to see the way our city’s schools are being persistently misrepresented.
It is in everyone’s best interest that we as a city emerge from the negative civic tunnel vision that has created an inaccurate view of our public schools. Out of enormous respect for the accomplishments of our students, families, teachers, staff, administrators and community partners, I owe it to the community to set the record straight.
A public school district should be judged on two grounds: how well it delivers on the civic promise to educate all of its children, and how well it manages its resources in attaining student achievement. On both counts, Seattle Public Schools earns high marks.
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Let’s take a look at the facts. Our students, among the most diverse in the state of Washington by any measure, actually outperform the state average on standardized tests. They have shown seven consecutive years of improving test scores. Seattle’s public-school students match or even outpace our neighboring districts, which enjoy much more favorable press.
The leadership of Carla Santorno, our new chief academic officer, only increases our capacity to accelerate our rate of achievement. We are devoted to our vision in which every student is a reader, writer, mathematician and ready for college and work. This vision can be the reality for all our students when we have the resources to hire, retain and enrich dynamic principals in every building and talented, highly trained teachers and staff in every classroom.
On the financial front, Seattle Public Schools has come back from a serious financial deficit. Through tough decisions and day-in, day-out discipline, we erased an inherited $34 million shortfall and have built reserves to more than $20 million. It is good business practice for an organization with a budget of more than $400 million to have a modest reserve, and this achievement is nothing short of remarkable, given the systemic underfunding of public education in our state.
To achieve this financial stability, we have had to make tough decisions, including closing school buildings. No one likes the idea of closing a school, but it is the reality from time to time for public school districts. Shifts in demographics and aging facilities make for hard choices in order to ensure that every available dollar goes toward supporting kids in the classroom.
In our state today, chronic underfunding hampers a school district’s ability to provide an excellent and personalized education for all students. The real costs of educating each child keep going up, but state funding is not keeping pace. The result is that there is less and less money to do the same things.
But even doing the same thing is not good enough anymore. We are all now engaged in raising standards and accountability across the board. And simply put, high quality costs more. This puts districts in the position of having to rely on local levies to make up the difference created by this structural deficit for public schools.
While our state leaders are to be commended for their efforts last year to begin moving us in the right direction on funding, we all need to support our legislators in dedicating significant new dollars to public education. Most people are shocked to learn that Washington ranks in the bottom 10 states in terms of funding for public education. How can we demand that our children reach for the stars when the grownups have them in the nation’s basement in terms of education funding?
As proud as I am of the daily dedicated efforts of our teachers and staff, we must bear in mind that children are only in school for six hours a day, nine months a year. For us to make true strides in academic achievement, we need to pay much more attention to basic quality-of-life issues for our children. Research confirms what test scores also reveal: Childhood poverty and racism are the biggest factors keeping our kids down.
Civic leaders have given much of their volunteer time and talent of late to citizen advisory committees on education. There are plenty of fresh ideas focused on educational outcomes: increasing access to high-quality early learning opportunities, supporting parent involvement, increasing personalized instructional time in the classroom, and increasing students’ access to artistic, athletic and culturally rich activities — to name just a few. Rather than further taxing good will in this manner, I challenge us to commit ourselves to identifying the resources needed to take action and improve children’s lives.
We also know plenty about how basic needs for housing, food, health care and meaningful work must be in place for families to create the necessary foundation for their children’s success in school and life. Let’s turn our civic hearts and minds toward something truly worthy of us — changing our children’s underlying reality for the better.
I am galvanized in my intention to spend the next nine months working with the School Board to direct more resources to the students and schools that are struggling the most. I won’t back down from our commitment to openness as we solve problems and make decisions, but I will make sure we are as committed to speaking out about our many successes in Seattle Public Schools.
We are fortunate to live in a community with a track record for rising to the occasion. We all have a role we can play, and we need to come together now to deliver for our kids.
Raj Manhas is superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.