Innovate Washington state's K-12 schools, don't cut the school year
Guest columnist Robin Lake argues that Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposal to cut the K-12 school year by four days if voters don't approve a tax increase is a false choice. She suggests several ideas for how savings can be found short of cutting the school year.
Special to The Times
AMID our state's ongoing budget woes, lawmakers say they can no longer protect K-12 schools from more cuts. To balance the budget, Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she will ask voters to choose between reducing the school year by four days and temporarily increasing the state sales tax.
This is a false choice. There are other, better ways to reduce schools' costs.
Cutting school days is the worst option. Study after study shows that more time with high-quality teachers is the key ingredient to student success. Cutting school days hurts kids, lowers teachers' annual earnings and loads full benefits onto even fewer days of work. Policymakers and voters deserve to know that less-harmful cost-cutting measures are possible.
Yes, some cuts are necessary, and some will be unpopular. But there are some innovations available that can actually improve schools and student performance if our leaders and policymakers will embrace them. We must be smart about investing in what works. Here is a sampling of innovations Washington should consider.
• Encourage reconfigured staffing models supported by innovative technologies. "Blended learning" models like Rocketship Education in San Jose, Calif., and School of One in New York City combine online instruction with reconfigured staffing models. Teachers are empowered to work with smaller groups of students, computer-based instruction adapts to students' learning needs, and cost savings are invested in higher teacher salaries, social services for needy students, or other school learning priorities.
• Roll back teacher salary bonuses for master's degrees and for National Board Certification. These two pay bonuses are driving up wages, with no credible evidence that they help boost student achievement. These bonuses may have seemed like a good idea in better financial times, but eliminating them won't hurt students.
• Rethink automatic longevity pay raises. Washington teacher salaries increase based on seniority, and teachers receive escalating increases negotiated in local bargaining agreements on top of that. Since the recession started, state teachers' salaries have gone up steadily while most other professionals have not even received cost-of-living adjustments. The state could eliminate salary increases for the most-senior teachers. When the funding picture improves, salary growth can be targeted to reward our top teachers for working in high-poverty schools or to attract talented math and science teachers.
• Allow school districts to make layoffs based on performance, not seniority. Currently, districts lay off the most-junior (and least costly) teachers first, even if they are more effective than some more-senior teachers.
• Stabilize employee benefits spending. Eliminating just two sick days and taking steps to reduce district costs for health premiums would require reopening district labor contracts, but would move districts toward affordable cost structures.
• Encourage districts to develop innovative ways to apply statewide spending cuts. With enough regulatory flexibility, some districts may decide to reduce staff and raise pay for remaining staff to cover those responsibilities of additional workdays and workload. Other districts may decide to increase class sizes in certain subjects and reduce them in others. A new website allows districts to compare budget savings from various policy changes: http://holdem.erstools.org/card-game/index.html.
• Temporarily reduce the number of teacher professional-development days for two years. There may be more effective and less costly ways for teachers to get access to the supports they need to improve their practices.
Nearly every other state is in the same boat as Washington. They face the same challenges to rethink the ways in which they use their shrinking resources. Washington will likely feel the same fiscal pressures for at least the next few years. We can begin rethinking our resources to build a more sustainable, intentional and effective system now. Or we can continue down the path we've been on for the last few decades and ask taxpayers or students to pay the price.Robin Lake is associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.
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