OP-ED: Tacoma News Tribune, November 19, 2004

School Reform Needs Choices, Accountability, Money


When it comes to education reform, the November election was a “victory for the status quo” according to Associated Press columnist Dave Ammons.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson was re-elected to a third term, and both Initiative 884 (sales tax for schools) and Referendum 55 (charter schools) were defeated by 60-40 margins.

But it didn’t have to be that way. Looking “behind” the numbers shows that a solid majority (about 60 percent) of our state’s voters agree that the current public education system is not serving all children well and needs a major overhaul.

This is hardly surprising, given the fact that 30 percent of the children attending our state’s public schools never even graduate from high school with a regular diploma, a special education diploma or a G.E.D.—a performance that is worse than most other states.

The “education pipeline” that carries children from kindergarten to college leaks a lot, and every drop represents a child who will not reach his or her full potential. Thirty percent of our kids never even graduate from high school, and fewer than half of those who do graduate will ever earn a degree from a community college or university.

The problem is, the solid pro-reform majority that knows our current public school system isn’t working is itself divided into three separate camps: those who think the fundamental cause is “not enough money” (I-884); those who think the fundamental cause is “not enough choices and accountability” (R-55); and those who think the fundamental cause is both “not enough money” and “not enough choices and accountability.”

Here is what you see when you “look behind the numbers.”

Although I-884 and R-55 each received about 40 percent of the vote, it wasn’t the same 40 percent. According to polling data, only about 20 percent of all voters supported both I-884 and R-55, while 20 percent of all voters supported only I-884 and another 20 percent supported only R-55.

So while 60 percent of voters recognized that the current education system is not working for all children, neither I-884 nor R-55 could gain majority support for its proposed solution to this problem.

This analysis also helps explain how Bergeson was re-elected by such a wide margin even though she supported both education ballot measures (I-884 and R-55) that were each defeated by a wide margin.

Unlike her challenger, Bergeson recognized that the current education system needs more money, and more choices, and more accountability. Thus she was able to attract voters from all sides of the pro-reform majority. While Bergeson’s re-election was a victory for the pro-reform majority, voters re-elected her without giving her the tools she needs to do her job effectively.

It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. How can we expect to solve our state’s graduation crisis without doing something differently?

The pro-reform majority has the power to solve our state’s graduation crisis if we can find a way to work together. We all agree that the needs of our children must be given a much higher priority. But we must also recognize that this will never happen unless the pro-reform majority can unite behind a comprehensive proposal to bring more money, choices and accountability to our public schools system.

To solve our state’s graduation crisis, we must turn around our persistently low-performing schools, attract, retain and reward effective teachers, dismiss ineffective teachers, and create more public school choices so that no child is forced to attend a school that doesn’t meet his or her individual needs and learning style.

The new governor and Legislature should work with Bergeson to craft a bipartisan compromise bill that includes all three legs of the pro-reform agenda: more money, more choices, and more accountability.

They must not fail, because the needs of our children are too important. If they do fail, however, the pro-reform majority should work together and file a new ballot measure that combines the best elements of I-884 and R-55.

Jim Spady is president of the Washington Charter School Resource Center

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