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Helping schools should start with winning back federal funds

Cherry trees blooming in Olympia Credit: John Stang

Washington state schools are No. 1. That’s right, Washington state schools are the first in the nation to lose their No Child Left Behind waiver. Losing the waiver means that Washington state loses control of $40 million of badly needed Title I funds. These funds, which are currently being used to help increase student achievement, will have to be redirected to sending students to better schools and private tutoring.

Why did Washington lose its NCLB waiver? Pure and simple, it was because the state Legislature was unable to integrate state test scores into teacher evaluations.

Washington state students take math tests and science tests, English tests and history tests, standardized tests and college boards. Their performance is tested day in and day out, and it determines what grades they make, what courses they take and what colleges they attend. Eventually, their scores may even determine what kind of work they do and what professions they pursue.

Progress and performance measurement are an integral part of our educational process for students, but apparently not for teachers. Only by tying teacher evaluations to student performance on state tests can Washington reclaim its lost millions.

As it has known for a long time, the state Legislature needs to find additional billions to fully fund education under the McCleary ruling by the state Supreme Court. It can ill-afford to start off by losing the $40 million of federal Title I funding for struggling students. Now it’s time to put in your earplugs, because the blame game in Olympia will ramp up. Gov. Jay Inslee and State School Superintendent Randy Dorn blame the Legislature, Republicans blame Democrats, and the Washington Education Association blames U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and NCLB. But before the rhetoric goes into overdrive, let’s look at what the tests can tell us.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered in the U.S. by the National Center for Education Statistics, provides the most comprehensive comparison of math, science and reading skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds around the world. The assessment tells us that in mathematics, American students perform below the average of the 65 participating nations. We do better than Indonesia, Columbia and Kazakhstan, but fall behind Poland, Estonia and Vietnam.

Even worse, most rankings of Washington state show it falling below our national average. Is mediocrity the best that Washington can do? I believe the state that is the home to Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing can do better.

So, let’s try a new approach. Let’s admit that Washington state education has a problem and decide that anything short of excellence isn’t good enough for our kids. Let’s cut out the finger pointing and work together to fix what’s broken. Every journey must start with a first step.

The first step in this journey is to reclaim the $40 million dollars lost along with our NCLB waiver. The loss of the NCLB waiver came at this time because, in Education Secretary Duncan’s words, “those efforts were unsuccessful, and your legislature is not scheduled to reconvene until January 2015.” Gov. Inslee can get the ball rolling to reclaim those funds by simply calling a special session of the Legislature devoted exclusively to education. However, there is no sense in calling such a special session unless there is a reasonable chance that Olympia can put politics aside and do what is right for our kids.

We all need to cooperate to create an environment where achieving this goal is a slam dunk. Teachers can weigh in by telling the WEA that they are proud of their accomplishments and are not afraid of objective state performance measures. School administrators can weigh in by assuring teachers that weak performers will receive help, not harassment. Parents and students alike can call our legislators and let them know that education in this state needs the Title I funding.

In that environment, Democrats and Republicans would find it easy to reach across the aisle to pass the legislation needed to put that $40 million back to work for Washington kids. Once that happens, it will finally be time to play a little politics. Then an appeal by our Democratic governor to a Democratic administration in the other Washington will have the greatest chance of success.

So, in simple terms, let’s trade cooperation for conflict, fixing for fighting and success for failure. Then we can be proud of our collective grade. There will be no F for finger pointing, no D for double-talk, no C for complacency and no B for blame. We can all earn an A for both effort and excellence as we start making Washington state schools number one for the right reasons.

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