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Originally published Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Create a state Department of Education that reports to the governor

We must fund education and create a seamless, accountable system, writes guest columnist Chris Gregoire.

Special to The Times

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WASHINGTON’S education agencies are too often focused on the adults, not the children. Among my biggest goals as governor has been to change that, to return the focus to students in a seamless education system from early learning through college, and to provide accountability for that outcome.

It is our moral responsibility to get it right, and now it’s also our legal one with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling on the constitutional mandate for K-12 basic education funding. In the budget I proposed for 2013-2015, I asked the Legislature to make a sizable down payment on that obligation. That starts with $1 billion for the next two years and grows to $3.4 billion a biennium in six years.

We must do more than provide the funding. We must fix the system, starting with the creation of a statewide Department of Education that spans early education, K-12 and higher education.

Should the Legislature act on my budget proposal, the impact of my proposed investment would be immediately felt across the state. More than half of all kindergarten-through-second-grade students would be in smaller classes. More than half of all kindergartners would participate in full-day classes. Pupil transportation would be fully funded to cover the actual costs of transporting students.

Curriculum materials would be fully funded — putting more up-to-date books and materials in the classroom. Professional development for teachers and principals will be a focus. And over time, those investments will grow, giving our K-12 system the funding it needs and students the learning opportunities they deserve.

In my first term, we were able to boost K-12 funding by more than $3.1 billion. We bolstered higher education and created the Department of Early Learning. For the first time, we fully funded class size and teacher pay initiatives.

Then the Great Recession set in and forced cuts across state government. I’ve repeatedly said that as we emerge from this recession, the first new dollar must go to education — as well as the second and third. In the budget I proposed in December, I stood by that commitment with more than 80 percent of new spending steered to education. In addition to a $1 billion down payment on the McCleary v. State of Washington K-12 decision, I also added 61 percent to early learning, $20 million to STEM training at our public universities, and $35 million to fund College Bound scholarships.

But money alone isn’t the answer. We need to not only invest in education, we need to create a seamless, accountable system focused on students and their success. We must break down our educational silos. Education is now thought of in distinct phases: early learning, K-12, community colleges and universities. While those sectors are starting to collaborate, they haven’t yet torn down barriers and turned their focus to asking what we should be doing from the student’s perspective.

Early learning is the fundamental building block for success. Kids must enter kindergarten ready to learn. We know that if kids don’t do well in middle school, difficulties can often be traced back to early learning, kindergarten and the primary grades.

We know that the transition from middle school to high school is among the hardest and where many students lose ground. Many students don’t drop out because of test scores or other requirements. They drop out because we are failing them in these key transitions. For example in 2009-2010, 35 percent of ninth-graders earned fewer than four credits, which means that these students are already one or more credits behind the goal of graduating from high school in four years’ time.

In higher education, particularly at our community colleges, we spend too much time, and money, offering remedial classes because students did not graduate from high school ready for college. Finally, our universities can do more to help students succeed and graduate on time.

We can do better.

Today we have eight education agencies and at least as many major strategic plans. That’s too many. We need a system that works together, not one that is limited to organizational views. We need a system that tackles challenges, not avoids them. What we have now doesn’t make sense from the student’s point of view. It doesn’t make sense from an economic one, either.

As we prepare to fully fund education, given the state Supreme Court’s mandate and our moral obligation, we must assure that money is well spent and that taxpayers are getting what they pay for. For example, we know that early learning improvements alone could save us $27 million a year by avoiding the repeating of grades in the K-12 system. We know, too, that just 40 percent of our state university students graduate in four years, a delay that costs $21 million a year.

We need a single, cabinet-level Department of Education to unite the state’s multiple education agencies to ensure priorities are aligned and the focus remains on students. The secretary should be recruited from the best and the brightest across the country. He or she should have full authority to oversee the entire Washington state education system with effective evidence-based, student-centered best practices.

While this organization would drive accountability at every level and make certain we are getting outcomes for the investments we make, it would, most important, focus on the students.

Our competition is global and our education system must be, too. Other countries are outpacing us, doing a better job of educating.

On a trade mission to India, an education minister told me that his country would like to outsource the American education system and train American students at a lower cost and with greater success. That’s not the outcome we want.

Money is part of the solution. But the other part is fixing the system. We must commit to both.

Chris Gregoire is the outgoing governor of Washington state.


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