Chris Cargill: We need to restore trust in Washington’s public education system

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How bad do schools need to get before parents and officials take a stand? That’s the question many are asking after the release of the latest round of lackluster K-12 public school test scores in Washington state.

The tests – called Smarter Balanced Assessment – were completed last fall. The discoveries are heartbreaking.

The number of students failing state standards in math is now 70 percent. In all ethnic categories, learning declines were significant.

The number of students who fail state standards in English is also 53%.

In a state that spends more than $16,800 per student per year, more than most private schools, how are these learning outcomes acceptable, even remotely?

The declines are sad but predictable. Politicians and teachers’ union leaders across the state fought to keep schools closed for much of 2020, instead using an “online curriculum” that offered little to our state’s children.

Even now — after all the research into public school safety — some unions are still fighting to have classrooms closed because of COVID.

It is clear that the biggest problem in public education is not the lack of money. Funding for schools has increased over the past 10 years and now accounts for more than half of the state budget. An average class of 20 students receives funding of $330,000.

If it’s not money, then what’s the problem with education? Three things: lack of accountability, lack of transparency and wrong spending priorities.

Have you heard of anyone being held responsible for deteriorating K-12 results? The state superintendent of public instruction did not lose his job. School boards in Washington state rarely fire a superintendent for a district’s poor academic performance. Principals are not dismissed, nor are failing teachers. Unions protect their jobs at all costs.

In short, adults come first, even if children suffer.

Restoring trust in public education is also a matter of transparency. Your local school district is supposed to work for you, not the other way around. Instead of taking more money from taxpayers or excluding parents from program decisions, school leaders should bend over backwards to involve the public.

Finally, lawmakers must demand that public schools get back to academic basics.

In the last legislative session, lawmakers required K-12 teachers to be trained in “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The title sounds innocuous, but our research shows that the mandate is part of the controversial critical race theory. The harmful sessions did nothing to improve the children’s academic performance. Instead, they pitted the staff against each other and caused division.

How to restore trust in public schools? State Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Walla Walla, has an idea: a Parents’ Bill of Rights. Among its six provisions, parents should have the right to review the curriculum and information about who is teaching their child. Also included – requiring the recording and viewing of audio and video of school board meetings.

Another way to restore faith – allow more choice. Instead of families being assigned to schools by zip code, allow parents to access some of the money for their child’s education.

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, introduced a bill to provide $10,000 scholarships to up to 100,000 students and their families. Scholarship funds may be used for tuition, supplies, and other costs in public schools, private schools, charter schools, or home school systems.

If a local school drops children or refuses to open, parents can take their child and their tuition elsewhere.

This idea is not partisan or even very controversial. Many states have broader learning choice programs. If parents cannot obtain accountability, transparency and priorities, they should have access to alternatives.

If you think things can’t get any worse, consider State Senate Bill 5735. It would allow “up to 20%” of teaching hours per week to be “asynchronous” based on “distance learning”. That is, more forced online classes and less in-person class time.

We have reached a point where we can either support parents and children or fund buildings, bureaucracy and a politically powerful union. For the sake of our future, let’s hope our leaders choose wisely.

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington Director of the Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Seattle, Tri-Cities and Olympia. Online at washingtonpolicy.org. Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously organized fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and serve on the organization’s board of directors.

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