Let’s face it: We are missing the “opportunity of this crisis” to embrace a fundamental new approach to how government works. We are self-censuring ourselves before we’re even out the door with new ideas, new approaches, and new policies.
We need to gain the courageous honesty to embrace this crisis, to transform how our state government operates, and to promote meaningful reform. We need to tackle old problems with new energy and spirit. We need to redefine our very definition of "leadership" so we’re not looking for someone to push from the top but to unleash from the bottom. We need bold systems-thinking about structural challenges because our old model of tinkering with the symptoms is no longer working.
As a backbench member of the Legislature, I appreciate that things take time. I appreciate that my job is to listen and learn, and to recognize the complexity of government is not easy. Yet there is also something powerful afoot with the President's message that we’re all community organizers now. As we citizens and politicians design a comprehensive strategy for legislation in 2010 and beyond, we need to recognize that people are inspired by a belief that Northwesterners can be so much more than what we’ve settled for.
We are an entrepreneurial, creative, and engaged region. Yet too often our public policies do not reflect these core values. As I see it, we face four fundamental issues in our state today: health care, education, taxes, and governmental reform. Let me take them in order.
Health care: We are essentially punting to the Obama administration to fix the insurance side of the problem, yet that is a fraction of the larger systems issue. We need a new approach toward a prevention-oriented system of care. We could do amazing things if we linked city, county, and state employees together and demanded a new approach to prevention and wellness, one that would reduce the ruthless increase in costs to taxpayers.
Here's an example. If you smoke as a public employee, we’ll give you 12 months and free access to programs to quit. At the end of that time, if you still smoke, your deductible increases sharply and dramatically. Same with obesity and other problems. This is a way to hold people accountable for the long term costs of their behavior. But are we doing it? King County’s lauded program is good but not enough; cities and other counties and the state are nowhere near where they need to be for us to become the healthiest state in the nation by any metric.
Health care costs are devouring tax dollars, yet we leave each city, county, state, and other government agency to fend for itself in insuring its workforce. We can't just continue to feed the beast of the current health-care complex and expect healthier kids, families, and communities to result.
Education: We made modest, thoughtful, and genuine steps forward with the Education Reform Act, HB 2261. Now we have to tackle funding and how to get better results for the tens of billions we are spending. Washington is losing out on federal funds in this area because we don’t have quality data, measurable systems, charter schools, and other reforms that the Obama administration feels are vital to systemic improvement.
Here are some indicators of how serious our education problem has become. Seattle's high school graduation rate is 62 percent. Nearly one quarter of the adults of our state don't have a high school diploma. Yet despite these problems, Seattle's School District has granted tenure to school principals, raising the question of how can you lead a school and empower better teachers when you yourself aren't held to high standards?
Some suggestions for reform: Bring back shop class by forming new partnerships with community and technical colleges. Unleash the University of Washington and other colleges by giving them control over their own budgets instead of forcing them to play politics to keep legislators happy. Mostly, let's admit that our education focus has been on inputs (more money) and process (fewer hard decisions), rather than on outcomes and results.
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