OP-ED: Seattle Times, October 4, 2004

Fulfilling the Promise of Education Reform

By KERRY KILLINGER, Special to the Seattle Times

We promise all students in Washington they have a right to a quality education. We face some critical education decisions in the November election. How we vote will help determine whether we follow through on our promise.

Recent independent, nonpartisan opinion surveys show Washington voters believe by a wide margin that K-12 education is the most important issue facing the Legislature, above health care and transportation. Voters also say they don't want graduation requirements watered down and that students need to be better-prepared for the workplace and college.

The good news is we have been making substantial progress on those concerns.

A decade ago, too many students were graduating without the skills needed to succeed in the workforce and in college. Employers were seeing dozens of job applicants who couldn't compete. Colleges and universities were spending a substantial amount of precious limited resources on basic education that students should have learned in high school.

Today, although there is more work to be done, the picture is considerably brighter. Education reforms approved in the early 1990s helped forge a system based on higher standards, measured results and accountability. As recently as the 2004 legislative session, the state made substantial additional progress in creating tools to help students, teachers and school districts succeed.

Scores on national and state tests are up across the board. All of us-including parents, educators, and elected officials-have a much better idea of which students and schools need additional support.

Making education reform happen requires strong, committed leaders in our community. Our superintendent of public instruction, Terry Bergeson, is one of them. Legislation championed by the superintendent and approved by the Legislature this year put a stronger support system in place for students, providing for retakes of the graduation test, targeted assistance and alternative assessments for those who may not be able to demonstrate progress on a traditional test.

Another tool to improve education approved by the Legislature this year would permit the creation of public charter schools. There are literally thousands of examples of great success by charter schools in the 40 states that allow them.

That's why Democrats and Republicans in our Legislature and Gov. Gary Locke supported the charter-schools legislation. It allows creation of five schools the first year and a total of 45 schools in six years, out of more than 3,000 public schools in our state. Unfortunately, sponsors of Referendum 55 seek to repeal this existing legislation and stymie the kind of innovation we badly need in educating our young people. Because of the way referendums work, voters will need to mark their ballots "yes" in order to affirm the charter-schools legislation.

Adequate funding and accountability are essential in our public K-12 system. Accordingly, charter schools would be held to high accountability standards. Local school boards would be required to review and approve them and, unlike existing schools, they will undergo regular performance audits. Plus, they will generate more money for education in this state because each charter school is eligible for $450,000 in federal funds.

Charter schools are not for every student or even the majority of students. But with the ability to reward excellence in teaching and to spur creative efforts to find the best ways to reach students who aren't succeeding in existing schools, they hold great promise for kids who today are falling through the cracks.

To have the skills necessary to succeed in the world of work, most if not all students will need additional education after high school, whether it's provided by a technical school, community college or a four-year university.

Initiative 884 would add a penny to the sales tax to raise money for critical needs from preschool programs to college scholarships. It would provide about $400 million annually to ease the chronic shortage of space at our state's colleges and universities. Public schools would get $500 million, including $248 million annually to fully fund reductions in class sizes approved by 72 percent of voters in 2000.

Concerns about I-884's sales-tax increase and the establishment of a dedicated fund are noteworthy, but on balance such steps may be necessary for our children and our future. While legislative solutions are generally preferable to initiatives, education is too important to be sacrificed on principle and these are exceptional times.

Education is vital not only to the success of our students but to the success of our entire state. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we support progressive policies and proven leadership.

We need to stay the course and continue improving our K-12 system, rather than retreating on education reform.

Let's continue the progress, and fulfill the promise.

Since 1997, Kerry Killinger has been the chairman of the Partnership for Learning, a coalition of business and community leaders supporting education reform. He is also the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Washington Mutual.

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