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Originally published January 27, 2012 at 3:01 PM | Page modified January 29, 2012 at 7:45 AM

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Give every Washington student an opportunity for success

Washington state's budget crisis creates an opportunity to craft a single, workable strategy for school improvement if sides each can step toward a common good, says Microsoft's Brad Smith.

Special to The Times

The greater good

Future of higher education

JOIN BRAD SMITH, other key business leaders and the presidents of Washington state's six four-year universities to discuss the risks of continued state cuts to higher education on Wednesday at Town Hall.

"Six Presidents: An Unprecedented Conversation on Higher Education Funding in Washington" will be moderated by Seattle Times editorial page editor Kate Riley and Times business columnist Jon Talton.

The event will be 7 to 9 p.m., Wednesday, at 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 admission will benefit College Success Foundation scholarships (seati.ms/wgOCYa).

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LIKE many states, Washington continues to battle significant budget challenges. Unlike many states, however, our constitution declares that it's the state's paramount duty to provide for the public education of all children. Unfortunately, steady declines in public resources now threaten our ability to live up to that commitment.

As a state, we should not allow our budget situation to permanently damage our schools' ability to prepare students for their futures. But the truth is that significant actions would be needed even without our budget crisis.

The current crisis creates a mandate for all of us to work together to ensure that schools have the resources needed to help our students succeed. It should also help provide a wake-up call that long-debated changes are needed to ensure that our education dollars are spent as effectively as possible.

Now more than ever, students need stronger skills to compete and succeed in an increasingly competitive economy. The connection between an individual's education and economic opportunity has never been clearer.

While Washington and the rest of the country face a jobs problem, with unemployment hovering well above 8 percent, we also face a skills problem. In 2010, Washington's unemployment rate for those without a high-school diploma was 15.5 percent. For those with a bachelor's degree or more, it was 5.1 percent.

Washington's employers want to hire Washington students. Companies across the information-technology sector rely on a pipeline of talent in science, technology, engineering and math for our success. We create thousands of jobs, yet struggle to fill them here at home.

The opportunities available to our state's young people depend on their ability to develop the skills to meet the needs of the economy. But Washington's education system is failing in this regard.

Thirty percent of Washington students do not graduate high school on time — with even worse rates for low-income students and students of color. This growing skills gap creates a growing opportunity divide, leaving more and more students behind and unprepared for the future.

This is unacceptable.

Some say the problem is systemic, and that only by adopting outcome-based reforms can we get better performance from our schools. For years, in fact, Washington employers and other school-reform advocates have supported long-term changes to our education system that would put student and teacher performance at the center of educational decisions.

For years, however, defenders of the status quo have successfully blocked these changes, putting seniority above performance in the hiring, placement and retention of teachers. They've argued that the failure of our schools is due to insufficient investment, and that we need only to raise revenue to improve our education system.

While both sides in the debate have their merits, neither position provides a complete solution. Simply spending more money as we always have is a recipe for failing slowly. Yet even good reforms coupled with more draconian spending cuts will have a devastating impact in the classroom.

The good news is that our budget crisis creates the opportunity to combine both positions into a single, workable strategy for school improvement.

Employers and other school-reform advocates can step out of their corner and support the additional revenues needed to help schools get past their current budget challenges. A temporary sales-tax increase, as Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed, is one important option worth considering.

Advocates for more school funding can step out of their corner to support proposals to improve teacher performance and student learning. Giving individual schools the flexibility to respond to the unique needs of their student body can help all students thrive. This includes hiring, developing and rewarding exceptional teachers, removing ineffective teachers from the classroom, and giving principals the managerial authority to begin closing the opportunity divide.

The education debate this legislative session cannot be limited to a conversation about funding. Because the solution is not just investment; it requires putting our dollars into what works in helping students succeed. Student success is the single most important outcome against which our teachers and schools should be measured. And it is toward that outcome that our public resources should be directed.

Washington's employers, educators, parents and policymakers expect our public schools to provide all students with a quality education. Together we can make significant progress this year in making this expectation a reality.

Brad Smith is the general counsel and executive vice president at Microsoft. The teacher-performance legislation is House Bill 2427 and Senate Bill 6203.

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