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Originally published Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 4:23 PM

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Guest columnist

Why citizens should care about Seattle school contract negotiations

Education is a critical economic issue. Guest columnists Phil Bussey and Jeremy Jaech of the Our Schools Coalition argue that everyone should be concerned about the ongoing negotiations between the Seattle Education Association and Seattle Public Schools.

Special to The Times

WITH all the issues created by the ongoing economic crisis, you might wonder why we are taking time now to opine on the importance of the Seattle school district's negotiations with its teachers union over a new contract. Simply because we have an ongoing crisis in education.

Education is a core issue with which we all must concern ourselves. As business people, we know the importance of meeting the needs and expectations of our customers.

Who are the customers here? We all are: as parents, who care about our children's pathway to meaningful careers and productive lives; as employers, who need to hire the next generation of skilled workers; and as taxpayers, who support a system of public education because we recognize that an educated citizenry is a fundamental component of a vibrant, economically successful community and a democratic society.

But the No. 1 customers are our children, and the outcome of the contract negotiation will have a profound effect on their futures. President Barack Obama said it succinctly in his July 29 speech to the Urban League: "Education is an economic issue — if not the economic issue — of our time."

As the president pointed out, the unemployment rate among people who have never attended college is nearly double that of people who have at least some college education. And, eight in 10 new jobs will require training or education beyond high school by the end of this decade.

Today, even with a fairly low bar for graduation, only six students out of 10 are graduating from Seattle Public Schools on time — and even fewer go on to college. With extended time, seven out of 10 students eventually graduate, but that means out of every class of Seattle Public Schools freshmen, currently about 3,400 students, 1,000 of them drop out before graduation.

That is an enormous amount of lost potential for the individuals involved and to our community as a whole, and it really must not be perpetuated.

We need Seattle students to graduate from high school, and graduate ready for college, work and citizenship. Even in these tough times, good jobs are being created. Local businesses would much prefer to hire local talent, but so many of our students are simply not prepared for these jobs. We owe it to our students to give them a real opportunity for success. And we need a qualified work force to sustain our 21st-century economy if we are to stay competitive globally and continue to enjoy a quality of life that is the envy of other nations — and in the case of Seattle, the rest of our own nation.

The Our Schools Coalition, of which we are members, is a broad-based coalition of business and community groups, education advocates and individuals representing diverse interests across the city. We are advocating for a teacher contract that supports teachers, but one that also focuses on having an effective teacher in every classroom. Because our students are the primary customers, and it is time that the system worked for them.

Our nine-part proposal (described in detail at www.ourschoolscoalition.org) is rooted in driving positive student outcomes, and will result in new ways for teachers to be recognized, rewarded and compensated.

The momentum for reform is powerful. In states and urban districts across the country, management and labor have come together to implement contract changes that improve student achievement and recognize teachers as professionals.

Today, Seattle has this same opportunity. There is nothing more central to educational success than great teaching, and it is our duty as a community to provide every single student with an education that gives them a real opportunity for success.

As President Obama said, "Our children get only one chance at an education, so we need to get it right."

As the Our Schools Coalition says, "We don't bargain, but we live by the bargain." Everyone in Seattle does. So, let's get this right for our children and our future.

Phil Bussey, left, is president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Jeremy Jaech is chair of the Technology Alliance and CEO of Verdiem.

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