Here's what can be done to reform K-12 education in another tough budget year
There is much that can be done to meet the demands of a recent Washington Supreme Court ruling saying the state wasn't doing enough to fund basic education. Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, and Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, propose a bipartisan approach, including bills, to get started.
Special to The Times
THE state Supreme Court recently answered a question raised by the McCleary family and others by ruling that state government isn't doing enough to fund basic education.
Despite state government's financial troubles, many Washingtonians probably share the view expressed by Stephanie McCleary on this page that lawmakers must start increasing funding for our K-12 public schools now ["Education funding: What part of 'paramount' don't they understand?" Opinion, Jan. 11].
So let's ask another question that acknowledges the realities of our state's situation: Without breaking the bank, can the Legislature do anything during its 60-day session to move toward the world-class K-12 system our state needs while taking a giant stride to close the "opportunity gap" and offer hope to parents and children who feel trapped by low-performing schools?
A pair of bipartisan bills filed last week would, at relatively little cost, help state government comply with its constitutional mandate to "make ample provision" for basic education — which includes but is not limited to funding.
To start with, nothing influences a child's learning within the confines of a school more than his or her teacher and principal. Senate Bill 6203 recognizes that, and would cost taxpayers nothing while offering a return that is incalculable.
SB 6203, based on the state's new educator-evaluation system that is due for statewide implementation during the 2013-14 school year, should lead to a great teacher in every classroom and a great principal in each school. That's because districts would use the new evaluations to help identify educators who need additional support and connect them with professional-development opportunities. Similarly, high-performing teachers and principals could see opportunities to polish their skills.
This bill also would allow districts to retain their strongest performers in case of budget-related layoffs and place teachers and principals where they can do the most good for students. Those choices, not allowed under the current system, are crucial to achieving the educational outcomes we need.
The second bill would give new educational options for the students who fall through the cracks in the public-school system. For too long we've accepted the premise that public schools fail every child. Public schools don't fail every child, and we don't have to look very far to find success stories. It's time to acknowledge that our public schools are consistently failing a subset of students.
Statistic after statistic tells us that we have made very little success in closing the achievement gap in the past decade. Low-income and minority students are not performing at grade level in crucial subjects like math and reading.
Washington's constitution requires a "uniform" system of schools. To us, that means learning opportunities available to students in the adjacent but diverse legislative districts we represent should not vary according to their ZIP codes. When a school underperforms year after year, students and their parents should at least be given hope that things will change, or given access to an alternative source of education. We propose both.
House Bill 2428 would enhance the state's authority to intervene in underperforming schools by moving them into a statewide school district dedicated to school transformation. The state would partner with those on the cutting edge of student achievement — colleges, universities and nonprofits — to turn the school around.
This bill also would allow for the creation of public charter schools. The state Board of Education would be given the authority to authorize public charter-school applications from local school districts, public colleges and public universities. These public charters would be free, optional and open to any student in Washington. Instead of simply investing in our schools, we must invest in our students to ensure they receive the custom-fit education they deserve.
The ultimate answer to the McCleary decision is to fund education first. In the meantime these two proposals would complement, not conflict with, the reforms from 2009 cited by the justices. We know these proposals, like anything new, will elicit strong emotions from all across the ideological spectrum, but we simply can't sit idly by and watch more of our children underperform because of circumstances they did not create.Sen. Steve Litzow, left, is a Republican from Mercer Island. Rep. Eric Pettigrew is a Democrat from Seattle.