Opinion

Washington state clearly spends enough on education | Angie Vogt

Nobody can feel good about the prospect of nearly 3,000 pink slips being handed out to teachers and support staff across the state of Washington.

The $9 billion budget shortfall faced by the Legislature is an opportunity to examine our priorities and to adjust our expectations of the role of government. Education is named as the paramount duty of government in the state constitution, so it would seem that after public safety, our schools would be at the top of the priority list and that no teacher should have to worry about job security. It would seem.

As is the case with every budget, what gets results is not how much money is spent, but how effectively the money is spent. Consider that between 1980 and 2007, spending on public schools has tripled (300 percent increase) while the K-12 student population has only increased by one third (33 percent). In fact, consuming up to 41 percent of the general fund, education spending accounts for the largest portion of the state budget. We are clearly spending enough money.

Yet we have been conditioned to believe that education is poorly funded and treated as one of the lowest budget priorities. This might be because in spite of all the “reform” proposals supported and advocated for by teachers’ unions such as smaller class size, teacher pay increases, reading grants and all-day kindergarten, along with about 100 other programs funded since 1993, student achievement remains elusive.

Washington’s high school graduation rate ranks 37th in the nation. Over half of the high school graduates that go on to college require remedial courses in math, reading and writing their freshman year before they can even begin taking college-level courses.

So what accounts for the dreadful results after so much money is spent? Liv Finne, the education research director at the Washington Policy Center, completed a comprehensive report on education in our state and offers eight practical ways to reform education that are radical, but proven methods. (The report is available in the education section at www.washingtonpolicy.org).

If state education policy makers would shift administrative money to the classroom through a more locally directed approach, suddenly a dynamic, transparent education infrastructure is revealed.

Instead of piling on more administrative staff in the Borg-type colonies of federal and state offices (sorry, had to throw a bone to the "Star Trek" fans out there), money should be directed toward teachers and the classroom — with principals building their teams of educators, district superintendents managing the principals and district resources, and local school boards selecting their superintendents. This creates a hierarchy with direct accountability where results can be measured. Many people are under the impression that this is already how it works.

In fact, according to Finne’s research, only 59 cents of every education dollar goes to the classroom (teacher pay, curriculum materials and daily operations) while the other 41 percent goes to feeding the state and federal eggheads in Olympia and Washington, D.C.

In fact, even decisions about curriculum, hiring and firing of teachers, and many basic functional decisions for our local schools, are made at these distant glass houses of education policy — without the input of our principals and local superintendents.

A school principal should be given the authority to creatively address issues that come up in his or her own school. Issues in Benton, Wash., will be different than those in Tacoma, just as issues in Tacoma will differ from those in Chicago.

Since 1971, the student population has increased by only 25 percent, yet the number of education employees has increased more than 77 percent. Less than half of the public school employees are classroom teachers. Too many precious dollars are spent far away from our community schools where we really need them.

According to Liv Finne’s report, if we restructured our state education system according the Washington Policy Center’s recommendations, we could double teacher pay by redirecting administrative dollars into the classroom.

Let’s give pink slips to the bureaucrats and give our teachers better salaries. Focusing on classroom dollars will enable our schools to focus on student achievement. Isn’t that the point of education?

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