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Originally published Saturday, January 4, 2014 at 4:36 PM

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Targeting education: Washington state legislative priorities for 2014

Income inequality is at the center of many public debates these days — from the Seattle mayor's race to SeaTac's new $15 minimum wage. But the surest way to close the gap is ensuring a high-quality education system accessible to all. A good education empowers individuals and translates, collectively, to the kind of economic power that fuels our economy. Education builds more than a pipeline to employment It is the strongest tool to create vibrant communities.The Legislature, which convenes Jan. 13, should continue its work on the kinds of reforms, investments and outcomes that support a first-class education system, from ages 3 to 23.

  • STEM | Fostering high-tech students: STEM skills are basic skills for the 21st century
  • K-12 | Much more than dollars and cents: Strengthen teacher evaluation, close achievement gap
  • EARLY LEARNING | Expanding preschool enrollment: Ensure children get a strong start

  • STEM | Fostering high-tech students

    STEM skills are basic skills for the 21st century

    Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times

    THE top drivers of Washington state's economy showcase technology and innovation. Think software, airplanes, medical research and viticulture.

    Jobs increasingly require educations steeped in science, technology, engineering and math — curricula joined together under the acronym STEM. Preparing young people for these jobs requires the infusion of STEM from early learning programs up through college.

    STEM skills are basic skills. Everyone needs to be tech savvy in the 21st century. Employment is one reason. A second reason is to participate meaningfully in a democratic society.

    Last year, the state Legislature passed a bill creating the STEM Education Innovation Alliance. The governor-appointed members of the working group will help shape and monitor a statewide education focus on STEM.

    The Legislature also passed a law in the last session allowing Advanced Placement computer science to count as a science credit toward high-school graduation requirements. The credit can also be used as a career and technology or math credit.

    This session addresses the second half of the state's two-year budget cycle. Lawmakers will not be making large budgetary decisions. But a sustained level of funding is crucial to support things like internships and other opportunities that help high-school students gain real-world STEM experience.

    Impressive examples can be found at schools including: the Technology Access Foundation Academy in Federal Way and the Raisbeck Aviation High School in Highline.

    In higher education, the Legislature must continue to address the urgent need for more STEM slots. Our universities are turning away qualified students because they do not have room. In the last budget, the state's four-year institutions asked for $50 million to increase STEM capacity. They received $17 million. Money is tight, but lawmakers can do better.

    Reforms will also need to be paced in a way that allows the improved rigor in the K-12 system to be greeted on the other side with more class seats in higher education. After all of the work being done to improve outcomes in the public schools, there must be places for the students who emerge.


    K-12 | Much more than dollars and cents

    Strengthen teacher evaluation, close achievement gap

    WHEN it comes to reforming the K-12 public school system, Washington state lawmakers should stick to the road map they have been following.

    Last legislative session, the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition worked with moderates in the House to pass bills ensuring all students are reading successfully by third grade, reducing the rate of out-of-school suspensions and requiring all high-school students to take at least one advanced class.

    But more needs to be done, including other reforms that will contribute to a world-class education. Efforts to use the state Supreme Court's McCleary education-funding ruling as an excuse to talk only about money should be soundly rebuffed. The Legislature's responsibility toward education is about more than money.

    "We still have a lot to do as far as education reform," Senate Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said during a recent news conference. "McCleary is not about dollars — McCleary is about making sure our kids will have a world-class education.

    "Dollars alone will not get you there."

    Hope for smart reforms again rests in the Senate Majority Coalition. The GOP-dominated caucus retains a 26-23 majority over Democrats, with the addition of Republican Sen. Jan Angel of Port Orchard.

    Lawmakers' first important task is to strengthen the state teacher and principal evaluation law, if the state wants to keep its federal waiver under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The new evaluation system, enacted in 2012, is more useful than the previous one. It includes the use of student test scores as one element out of many when rating teacher and principal performance.

    But the law's weak language — it says that statewide student test scores "can" be used, rather than "must" — resulted in battles throughout the state's 295 districts as teachers' unions and administrators faced off over whether to use state test scores.

    State test scores should be used, just as the scores from district and teacher-developed tests will be used. If Washington does not change the law to reflect this important principle, it may lose a federal waiver exempting it from mandates in the No Child Left Behind law.

    The word "can" must be exchanged for "must" in the law. Then lawmakers should turn to other legislative priorities on education. They include:

    • Meaningful high school diplomas: The Legislature should approve a 24-credit career-and-college-ready graduation requirement. The Legislature appropriated money in the 2013-15 general fund budget to pay for more counselors, instructional hours and other things needed to increase credit. But the money was not tied to the additional credits. Amend the law to link the money with the expectation that schools will offer enough credits to meet a 24-credit requirement, as recommended by the state Board of Education.

    • State-funded full-day kindergarten: A few heroic school districts, including the Highline School District, are paying for full-day kindergarten out of local funding. That flies in the face of the state Supreme Court's McCleary education-funding mandate. The state must pay more for basic education, starting with full-day kindergarten.

    • Close the opportunity and achievement gap: Closing these gaps by emphasizing strategies that address expanded learning opportunities, academic supports, partnerships, summer learning loss and culturally responsive instruction.

    • Improve teacher quality: The teacher evaluation system is designed not simply to rate teachers, but to help them improve. Robust, timely evaluations are key tools to identifying how teachers need to improve instructional practices and raise educational outcomes for all students, especially students of color, low-income students and other students traditionally underserved by public schools.


    EARLY LEARNING | Expanding preschool enrollment

    Ensure children get a strong start

    YOUNG children absorb information like sponges. Early childhood is a crucial window for learning and must be a top priority for the incoming state Legislature.

    Only three out of 10 Washington children, ages 3 and 4, were enrolled in preschool programs that met minimum state standards last year. That is one of the widest early education gaps in the nation, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

    The good news is that educators and policymakers are increasingly recognizing early learning's role preparing young children for school.

    Watch for legislation from state Reps. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park. Their bill would set a multiyear ramp-up in state-funded day care that brings in early learning goals and standards. The effort is bipartisan with support from Republican Rep. Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla and Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island.

    A statewide quality ratings system would be based on neuroscience and the best practices in early learning. All child-care providers receiving state subsidies would have to meet the new standards, which would be measured by early childhood education experts at the University of Washington.

    This would especially benefit the 55,000 or so kids who spend 10 hours or more each day in child care provided by Working Connections, a program serving families who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefits.

    The mechanics of this idea are still being worked out, but Hunter, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, and Kagi, who chairs the Early Learning and Children's Services Committee, have started as an important discussion.

    Research has proved the benefits of quality early learning, particularly for children from low-income families. Poor-quality child care harms the emotional and intellectual development of children and increases the chances of expensive remediation down the road.

    Lawmakers ought to embrace another practical fix: Move the state's Working Connections child-care program to the Department of Early Learning from its current home within the Department of Social and Health Services. Then watch the conversation shift from day care to education.

    Every lawmaker in the Legislature should also get behind efforts to streamline the various early-learning options into a single system. That would include not just day care, but the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), our state's equivalent of Head Start. Braiding the many options together could have pluses for funding as well. ECEAP provides only 2 ½ hours daily of early learning. Private preschools offer half-days, if not full days.

    Kids would benefit if the state could combine ECEAP and Working Connections funding into a single slot for a full day of high-quality early learning. The National Institute for Early Education Research ranked Washington's ECEAP program high for meeting nine out of 10 benchmarks for quality.

    Extending the hours of ECEAP fits with the Legislature's agreement last year to annually increase the number of ECEAP slots to 19,682 by 2018.

    Other states are making similar reforms and investments in early learning, notably Oklahoma which offers all 4-year-olds a free year of pre-kindergarten.

    Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).


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