Washington's new education initiative is no A+

Digesting the A+ Washington education initiative at a recent fundraising breakfast, it's clear the plan has room to grow.
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Bryant School in Seattle

Digesting the A+ Washington education initiative at a recent fundraising breakfast, it's clear the plan has room to grow.

The breakfast event is the fundraising method of choice for education groups in Seattle.

Held in various downtown hotels, these breakfasts follow a simple format: there’s an inspirational performance by children, followed by a welcome speech highlighting the organization’s history, its key accomplishments, and its new initiatives. Sponsors and VIPs, especially elected officials, are acknowledged. A keynote speech follows, and then comes “the ask” and the moment donation envelopes are passed around. People attend because they support the organization and what it stands for and because they have the financial means to make donations.

The theme of the League of Education Voters Foundation’s (LEV) second annual fundraising breakfast was “Schools that Work,” a deliberately positive focus on what we have, instead of what we don’t have, explained Chris Korsmo, the foundation’s CEO, in her keynote speech. In addition to raising money, the purpose of the breakfast was to generate support for LEV’s latest initiative, the A+ Washington education plan, which it helped develop as one of 36 members of the Excellent Schools Now (ESN) coalition. LEV is also the chief force driving the latest effort to put charter schools on the November ballot. 

To illustrate Korsmo’s point, LEV convened a panel of Washington educators who have successfully implemented innovative educational practices at their schools. The panel included Keisha Scarlett, principal of Seattle’s South Shore School, which has invested heavily in early learning; Robert Kalahan, principal of Totem Middle School in Marysville, which developed a plan and devoted additional resources and student support to make every student algebra-ready by eighth grade; Amy Lavold, a founding teacher at Tacoma’s Lincoln Center at Lincoln High School, which features extended school hours and extra support for students; and Rashad Norris, Director of Outreach Services at Highline Community College, the state’s most diverse school.

The audience lights were not dimmed during the presentation, but I wish they had been. Listening to Norris describe the outrage expressed by a group of students of color when he told them about the achievement gap, or Scarlett describing her inability to sleep at night whenever she worried that a student wasn't being properly served was inspiring. The crowd cheered when Lavold announced that Lincoln Center was about to graduate its first group of seniors, several of whom had qualified for college scholarships. Middle School principal Kalahan’s description of increasing opportunities for students to take rigorous math classes particularly resonated with me: Later in the day, I would be attending a meeting at my daughter’s middle school to complain about the lack of opportunity for rigor in math.

If the room had been dark, I could have imagined that this was not a fundraiser and that there was a broader, less homogenous audience, one that included more teachers and principals, who would benefit from the experiences of their peers, and a diverse group of parents, education advocates, and union members. I don’t think any of them would have left the room unaffected.

The A+ Washington initiative is intended as a way to expose more players in the education space to successful education reform, regardless of their financial status, political bent, or union stance. Billed as “a way forward for all students,” it sets forth four unifying principles that the ESN coalition hopes will resonate with a broad constituency:

  1. Expanding access to early learning,
  2. Excellent teachers and principals;
  3. Increasing college readiness; and
  4. Implementing flexible approaches to K-12 education that include accountability systems.

In spite of the plan's positive rhetoric, A+ Washington is still vague on the specifics of implementation and funding implications. At the breakfast, I’d gathered all the available reference materials, but couldn’t find anything specific about implementation of the plan’s strategies or the financial implications.

When I got home, I checked the A+ Washington website and eventually found some of the details I was looking for and a funding graph on a page it took several clicks to get to.

I went off to my math meeting, where I couldn't resist mentioning to a school administrator how middle school math is handled in Marysville, and got a polite smile in return. I didn’t bother to ask the teacher, administrator or the Seattle School District math official if they had heard of A+ Washington. Instead, we focused on the business at hand: rectifying the negative effects “the system” had wrought on my daughter in math and science. When I returned home from the meeting, feeling resigned and somewhat beaten down, there was a message on my answering machine. Apparently I had missed a robocall asking me to support A+ Washington.

In addition to its feasibility, the plan has faced criticism in comments on the Seattle Times from readers questioning the people behind the plan: Who are they? What's their agenda? Similar criticism has been levelled at the Excellent Schools Now coalition, the larger group responsible for the organization of A+ Washington, which has been called a faceless entity that does not publicize details on when or how often it meets.

For any observer, it can be confusing to distinguish between the many education-related coalitions and campaigns. In addition to ESN, there is also the Our Schools Coalition (a group of 40 organizations concerned with Seattle Schools), Powerful Schools (a community-based coalition which provides literacy, arts and other programs to Seattle and South King County elementary schools; also incidentally a member of both ESC and the Our Schools Coalition), and Schools First, a campaign organization that works to help pass Seattle Schools levies. 

For her part, Korsmo insists the A+ Washington agenda was developed through consensus and based on a wide variety of opinion. “The plan was developed by the coalition," she said, "and there isn’t consensus among that group about funding/revenue, but there is consensus on the policy changes we agree on. There was a lot of outreach to people outside the usual suspects to gain insight and to expand the breadth and depth of support. That included teachers, leadership in different communities, principals, etc.”

Korsmo acknowledges that funding will key to the project, but says she expects to deal with funding challenges as they arise. “While there are funding implications for reform, we have to weigh what we pay for that isn’t working, how to reinvest in what does work, and what additional funds are needed to implement changes with fidelity. The teacher/principal evaluation changes are a good example of extra cost. We advocated for additional funds to pay for training for this new system and will continue to do that. When there are clear examples of costs that have no obvious payers, we advocate for the funds to pay for the changes.” 

As for ESN’s steering committee, Korsmo names LEV, Stand for Children, the Partnership for Learning, and Teachers United as members. She says the policy teams of these organizations have started meeting to get people engaged in the next iteration of the A+ Washington plan.

At some level, this is obviously working. Many elements of A+ Washington are echoed in the education plans of gubernatorial candidates Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee, both of whom have endorsed the plan and attended the LEV breakfast, along with a number of state legislators.

The Washington Education Association (WEA), the statewide teachers union, has endorsed Inslee, but not A+ Washington. “WEA members don’t have a position on this plan, and we weren’t involved in drafting it,” WEA spokesman Rich Wood told me, reiterating his membership’s support for quality teaching and quality public schools for all students.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, who is running for re-election, also attended the LEV breakfast. According to his campaign, “Superintendent Dorn supports all the strategies included in the A+ summary document. In fact, many of these reforms are currently in the process of being enacted, largely due to the efforts of Superintendent Dorn. The key, of course, is turning these general strategies into specific pieces of legislation." 

The allure of A+ Washington lies in its promise to fix “the system,” which in our state includes 295 school districts and nine educational service districts (ESDs). Still, in the plan's current incarnation of broad, sweeping education goals, it is hard to imagine how the top-level policy recommendations included in A+ Washington will really trickle down to implementation in individual schools. Chris Korsmo acknowledges that the plan’s success depends on local buy-in.

“The changes we are advocating require strong implementation. One way to ensure that is to work locally. Initiatives such the Community Center for Education Results (CCER) Roadmap Project (an education initiative focused on South Seattle and South King County) provide the opportunity to look at the work different school districts are doing to close gaps and provide proof points to other districts that what they are doing works. So the reverse effect happens – local work gets focused on and put into the statewide plan. It’s trickle up as much as anything.”

At its best, the A+ Washington plan is an effort to celebrate our state’s education successes and establish common values and achievable goals for the future. Still, individual school district superintendents will need to support it and teachers, administrators and parents need to be able to see the direct benefits to their schools, classrooms and students for this to be more than just another coalition with just another plan.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the author of "Ruminations from the Minivan" and the blog "Slice of Mid-Life."