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Originally published February 7, 2013 at 4:04 PM | Page modified February 8, 2013 at 3:54 PM

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Op-ed: School funding should be tied to improvement in student learning

Washington state should reconnect learning to spending so as we add additional dollars into public education it means better results for our students, writes guest columnist Steve Litzow.

Special to The Times

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LAST year Washington’s Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to make “ample provision” for public education. Since then, public discussion has centered on more money for schools — something I support.

But spending is only part of the challenge. Today, state spending does not connect to student learning. More state funding should result in more student learning and higher achievement.

The state’s constitutional duty is to provide for education. But data from the Center for American Progress shows that today there is no measurable correlation between a student’s achievement and the dollars spent educating them. High-achieving school districts are seen among the lowest-funded districts. Low-achieving districts are found among the best-funded districts.

Don’t we all want a system of school funding where more dollars result in improved student learning? I want this cause and effect, which we don’t have today. My mission as the new chairman of the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee is to reconnect learning to spending so as we add additional dollars into public education it means better results for our students.

The ultimate goal for education funding should be a well-educated society, with all individuals capable of participating in the job market and in democracy.

One important goal, easily measured, is to improve graduation rates. Unfortunately, here in Washington our high-school graduation rate was 76 percent in 2011. The rate has fluctuated, but it remains lower than the graduation rate in 1995. We are failing one of four children. Many graduate without the skills to meet the high demands of our local job market.

My goal is to improve the graduation rate by 10 percent in 10 years. People can point to many factors in society that contribute to student failure, but the fact is that many states are making real progress while Washington is not.

What is particularly alarming about Washington’s low graduation rate is that children of color and children from poor families are disproportionately paying the price. Black and Hispanic students are graduating at a 67 percent rate, and Native American students at a 57 percent rate.

We must begin closing the opportunity gap — the difference, over time, in achievement between middle-class white students and low-income and students of color.

A student’s ZIP code and family’s economic situation shouldn’t decide his or her chance at academic and life success.

This session we are considering bipartisan ideas to bring transparency and accountability. They include: accelerated classes for those meeting state expectations; a requirement that students read at their grade level in third grade; and a state school district to correct persistently failing schools.

Other areas we’re reviewing include improving school safety, strengthening the teacher- and principal-evaluation system to support and promote the best teachers, and modifying our high-school assessments to focus on college readiness.

We also know that students absent from the classroom cannot learn. We’re reviewing a group of bipartisan bills about school suspensions and expulsions that include re-entry programs and targeted data collection on the socioeconomic factors and nature of disciplinary issues.

None of these ideas will solve our challenges individually, but focusing on real classroom learning will ensure that all students, not just some, are well-served.

The status quo is not nearly good enough. The state will never meet its constitutional obligation to provide for the education of children until it provides adequate funding that is tied to better results.

It won’t be easy for some to dismiss preconceived notions about what constitutes a successful education, but that’s what needs to happen.

Only by reconnecting learning with the money spent on education can we again have an effective public-education system of which we can all be proud.

State Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, serves as chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

A previous version of this op-ed said the state’s high-school graduation rates steadily declined to 76 percent in 2011. The graduation rates have fluctuated in recent years, but remains lower than the rate in 1995.

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