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School leaders rebuke legislators

By Jamie Swift

While Washington state K-12 education standards are among the highest in the nation, state funding for education ranks near the bottom.

``If we want to be a Third World state, we are on the right path,'' Northshore School District Superintendent Karen Forys said Friday, as she and three dozen other superintendents called on state lawmakers to stop ignoring their constitutional responsibility to fully fund basic education in schools at a news conference.

The emphasis of the group was on the legislature's responsibility to fully fund special education and transportation so that local levy funds can be freed up for school districts to help students meet state standards.

``One year ago, in January, 2004, we brought these issues to the state legislature,'' explained Mercer Island School District superintendent, Cyndy Simms. ``Since that time, the Legislature has taken no action to address these issues.''

Currently, local levies in the 35 districts that comprise the Puget Sound Educational Service District pay more than 40 percent of transportation costs and more than 28 percent of special education costs. Another set of state superintendents already has filed a lawsuit against the state, demanding the Legislature fully fund special education. A court date is set for October.

Local levy funding should be going toward extra programs that help to boost achievement -- not basic education, the superintendents said.

The superintendents from King and Pierce counties said the state is failing the schools and, consequently, more students will fail.

They cited as evidence the fact that last year just 38 percent of students passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test -- which, beginning next year, must be passed to graduate from high school.

According to statistics provided by the superintendents, Washington ranks 42nd in the nation in education funding -- at $6,779 per student -- sliding steadily down the list since 1980. Across the state, school districts have been forced to eliminate programs and staff as education funding has become less and less a priority in Olympia, superintendents said.

``We've done everything we can do,'' Kent Superintendent Barbara Grohe said.

Superintendents said it is not their responsibility to advise lawmakers on specific cuts to make to free up more funding for education.

Adding to the problem, superintendents said, schools have been deprived of $388 million over the past two years by lawmakers who have ignored the requirements of Initiative 728 and Initiative 732, both of which passed in 2000.

The initiatives, which would have hired more teachers and raised their pay, lacked specific funding sources and were suspended by then-Gov. Gary Locke when the state economy tanked shortly after their passage.

``We have a crisis ...'' said Enumclaw Superintendent Art Jarvis. ``We cannot overstate the problem.''

Reprinted from the King County Journal

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