Now is the time to redouble commitment to education funding
Though the state's budget deficit is daunting, Washington state lawmakers and members of the education community must decide some important issues, writes Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn. Among them, ample funding, reform and what a diploma actually means.
Special to The Times
As Washington's superintendent of public instruction, I often find myself in the role of mediator, helping passionate people on both sides of a debate reach middle ground.
In education circles around the state, three major issues are being debated: Whether we are serious about funding and living up to what our state constitution says is our "paramount duty"; how to define education "reform" and "accountability"; and what is the meaning of a high-school diploma.
As we head into a difficult 2011 legislative session, I will do my best to seek compromise, to build consensus and to speak for all students. Here is where I stand:
• Funding. Since I took office in January 2009, expected funding has been cut by $1.9 billion. My highest priority in 2011 will be to avoid further deep cuts in education.
Times are hard, but now is the time to recommit to education, not to run away from it. Further cuts will eliminate teachers, principals, paraprofessionals and other educational-support professionals. That will lead to fewer students getting individualized help. It will put students most at risk even further behind. It will hurt Washington state for years to come.
• Reform and accountability. In 2010, I worked closely with the state Legislature to pass Engrossed Second Substitute Senate Bill 6696. The bill — the first of its kind in a generation — establishes an accountability system for schools with falling test scores and creates new teacher and principal evaluation systems partially based on student performance. This bill is a major step in the right direction, and I will be working closely with school districts as they begin to implement these reforms.
• High-school diplomas. I am proud that, as of this school year, Washington is one of just 24 states that require testing as part of graduation requirements. But I am concerned by the high failure rates in our math and science exams and what that will mean for students in the class of 2013, the first to be required to pass state exams in four subjects.
In January, I will introduce legislation to alter our new math and science graduation requirements. My reason, simply put, is fairness.
For math, we're requiring students to pass end-of-course tests in algebra and geometry. But many of the students taking those tests will have taken the courses one or even two years before taking the tests. When moving from one comprehensive test to two end-of-course exams, it takes the system two years to align itself. We need to let that happen.
For science, we're requiring students to pass a graduation test. But studies show that the time spent teaching science in our elementary and middle schools varies greatly. I support high standards, but asking kids to pass a test that some haven't been adequately prepared for is neither realistic nor fair.
My math-science proposal will require students through the class of 2014 to pass only one end-of-course exam in math, and it will delay the science requirement until 2017, giving us time to make science more a consistent teaching priority. These common-sense changes will save the state more than $30 million in the 2011-13 budget period, which is crucial in our current financial crisis.
Many people want their voices heard regarding the future of our public schools. I find myself moderating very contentious debates, which often reminds me of the days when I was a high-school principal.
But in one area we must speak with one voice: If education is our highest priority, it must be funded as our highest priority. Fully funding education is not only the paramount duty of the state, it's the right thing to do. That is the greatest challenge our schools face as we begin to plan for 2011.Randy Dorn is Washington's superintendent of public instruction.
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