Life after I-884: Moving beyond the rhetoric

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Marsha Richards, director of the Education Reform Center for the Olympia-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation, argues it’s time to reform education in Washington, not just spend more on it.

Many legislators seem short on ideas now that voters have put responsibility for education reform squarely back in their laps with last week’s decisive defeat of Initiative 884 (the billion-dollar education tax increase). Post-election commentary about the measure is fixated on money and legislators are throwing up their hands wondering where they’re going to get more of it.

There’s nothing new in the rhetoric — and that’s the problem.

It’s time to consider the fact that we may already be spending enough money on education, we just aren’t spending it effectively. And it’s time to discuss the crucial need for structural reforms in our outdated, monopolistic education delivery system.

If you’re one of the many people in our state who believe we aren’t spending enough on public education, ask yourself: How much are we spending right now? Are we spending it wisely? How much would be enough?

The most common answer to those questions is a blank stare, which isn’t surprising. Most of us have been the target of a relentless, decades-old campaign by members of the education establishment who have never and will never believe education is “adequately funded.” After all, they want to be in a growth industry just like everyone else.

Understanding and acknowledging that fact is not unkind. It just means we should stop blindly basing our opinions and decisions about education policy on false assumptions.

What are the facts about education spending in our state?

We’re currently spending about $9.2 billion a year for K-12 schools (local, state and federal funds combined). That’s about $9,400 per student per year. K-12 spending increased 31 percent in real dollars between 1993 and 2003.

Per-pupil spending during that same time increased 34.8 percent in real dollars (16.5 percent inflation adjusted).

The state’s general fund operating budget for public colleges and universities is roughly $2.7 billion every two years—an amount that doesn’t include capital (building) expenses. Higher education spending increased by 45.4 percent (nearly three times the rate of inflation) between 1993 and 2003.

Of course it costs money to provide a quality education. But how you spend that money is just as important as how much. Of the $9.2 billion spent on K-12 education in 2002-03, only 42.5 percent was used for “basic instruction” (teacher salaries, curriculum, etc.), which means nearly 60 percent was used for other programs and support services.

In our public colleges and universities, millions of dollars are misspent due to low graduation rates (only 60 percent of students graduate after six years); low teacher/student contact time (the average teaching faculty reports 12 hours or less in class or meeting with students each week); and high remediation rates (57 percent of all first-year community college students must take high school level courses).

Blindly assuming more money will solve our education problems is bad for taxpayers and students. We’re spending more today than ever before, yet one out of three students fails to graduate from high school, 61 percent of our state’s tenth graders fail state assessments, and 43 percent of our new high school graduates must take remedial courses in reading, writing or math.

Why? Because we have a broken, monopolistic education delivery system that isn’t going to be fixed by expansion.

Imagine running our grocery stores the way we run our schools. Each of us would be assigned a store based on our zip code and the products in that store would be determined by state-level bureaucrats. If we didn’t like the store we were assigned, we could check with another nearby store and hope they had enough products to allow us to shop there.

Outrageous, right? We all know monopolies are bad news for consumers, so why do we imagine they’re good for our kids?

Students need highly qualified teachers, clear and rigorous academic standards, strong school leaders, smaller schools, and meaningful parental involvement.

We will never achieve these goals until we eliminate most of the 1,300 pages of small-print rules and regulations that stifle local schools; start paying teachers based on how well they do their jobs instead of how long they’ve had them; give principals the authority they need to select and remove staff and direct budgets; make sure more than half of the dollars spent get to the classroom; and reform the unfair laws that allow a monopoly labor union to control school policies that impact students.

If we care about the children in our state getting an excellent education, we need to stop protecting and expanding a broken system at their expense. Legislators should move beyond the rhetoric and implement the solutions that work.

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