Here’s what education reform ought to look like

John Burbank

John Burbank, Executive Director, Economic Opportunity Institute

From the Everett Herald:

‘Reform” is usually considered a good thing — but some education advocates talk as if a handful of charter schools and firing teachers based on their students’ test scores are the magic bullets that will “fix” our schools.

Their efforts may be well-intentioned, but they don’t actually address the real problems.

First, it’s important to note that we’ve made some real progress.

In 2000-01, 62 percent of 10th graders were proficient in reading. Last year, more than 82 percent of kids made the grade. The same story holds for writing — good writers jumped from 46 percent to 86 percent of all 10th graders. Over the same period, seventh graders more than doubled their proficiency in math. They also jumped 16 percent in reading, and from less than 50 percent to over 71 percent in writing. The same trends hold for fourth graders. That’s not perfection, but it is the right direction. Everett students improved even more than the statewide average.

Our schools — and our teachers — have to do more than educate. They cope with just about every problem in society. We’re not going to get far if we tell teachers they are to blame, cut their pay and threaten their jobs. If we really want to expand opportunities for Washington’s kids, we need ask some tough questions first, like:

What happens to a kid’s attention span when she comes to school hungry and tired? What happens to a child’s behavior when she is stressed out because Mom or Dad hasn’t found work in over a year? What happens to an older brother’s test scores when he has to stay home from school with his sick sibling, because neither parent’s job provides paid sick time? What happens when the only future shown to a child is that of a pro athlete, music star … or prison?

And what happens to us when the stated purpose of public schools becomes feeding profits for global corporations, rather than cultivating an educated and responsible citizenry for our democracy?

It’s curious that today’s reformers are so anxious to measure student and teacher performance, but somehow much less inclined to hold Washington’s leaders accountable for their constitutional duty to amply fund public schools. Since 1991, per-pupil funding for K-12 education in Washington has slipped from 17th to 31st in the nation. In terms of state personal income, we’ve dropped from 24th to 45th in spending. We’ve gotten wealthier, but we’ve also become more stingy.

The Legislature has cut $2.7 billion from K-12 in the past three years — increasing class sizes, pulling counselors out of high schools and trimming courses. And we wonder why kids aren’t getting opportunities to learn from kindergarten through 12th grade?

Lawmakers also cut $1.7 billion from community colleges and universities, and approved tuition increases that mean many would-be students are stranded out of college, and many graduates are hauling around tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And we wonder why Washington has to import talent from other states and countries to work at Boeing and Microsoft?

The real reason some kids aren’t making the grade has a lot less to do with their teachers, and much more to do with people who never experience austerity themselves, but think it’s just the prescription for K-12 and higher education.

While economic elites are siphoning off the cream of Washington’s economic productivity with massive profits and outsized incomes, the majority of families and their children get watered-down skim milk. Meanwhile, the opinion leaders charge ahead with “school reform,” having identified their principal adversary as teachers and their union.

Here’s a better way to get great schools: First, restore all the funding the Legislature has cut. Second, roll back college tuition to levels lawmakers themselves paid, 20 years ago. Third, with two out of every five kids officially poor or near poor, provide free breakfast and lunch for everyone. That would do away with some of the class stigma, and enable all kids to start school without hunger pangs.

And finally, create a tax system in which those who benefit most from our state’s immense productivity help pay for the public goods and the democracy that enables them to accumulate such great riches. Then we could ensure high quality education for all kids, and open the gates of higher education to all comers.

That would be true education reform.

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