MI shouldn’t ‘settle’ on schools issues

Sen. Brian Weinstein

It’s no secret that one of Mercer Island’s biggest draws is its excellent public school system. Our 10th-graders had the best scores in the state on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), which students must pass to graduate beginning with the class of 2008.

Our students, our teachers and our community have created a system that consistently demands, and delivers, world-class results for our children. Of the nearly 70,000 students statewide who took the 10th-grade exam, Mercer Island students are at the very top: 97 percent passed the reading section, 96 percent passed writing and 85 percent passed math.

Yet I worry that our students’ outstanding track record may remove our community from a vital conversation happening right now about the future of public education in Washington. It would be very easy for Mercer Island residents to adopt an “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” attitude about public education.

With the recent release of its final recommendations, the Washington Learns commission — Gov. Christine Gregoire’s blue ribbon panel of educators, lawmakers, business and minority leaders, and others — has done an admirable job of presenting a menu of options for creating a public education system for the 21st century. The 2007 Legislature has a hefty challenge in prioritizing the Washington Learns recommendations and carrying out the ones that will yield the best results for our state.

Here’s why it’s important for us all to pay attention to the Washington Learns report, which calls for sweeping changes in the way our public schools teach — and how we pay for it:

  • If we want Washington’s economy to grow, we have to do better in math and science. Even on Mercer Island, student proficiency in math is lower than in reading and writing. In a state so dependent on technology-based industry, we have to do a better job of exciting students about math and science. In a recent New York Times story, Mercer Island High School Principal John Harrison estimated that up to 10 percent of students at the school are using private tutoring to supplement their math education. Not every family has the resources to pay for private tutoring. We need to make sure that math and science are taught effectively in every Washington school.

  • The Washington Learns recommendations present a plan to bring world-class math and science into our classrooms by establishing a state list of rigorous math and science curricula; working to bring the best math and science teachers to Washington; and encouraging students to seek degrees in math- and science-related fields.

  • Highly qualified students should not be denied access to higher education because of an enrollment crunch. We are lucky to have some incredible research and regional universities in Washington. Yet I hear of local students who do well in high school but were turned away from the University of Washington because there simply isn’t room. Washington Learns calls for a coordinated 10-year enrollment plan that addresses how our state must invest in higher education access to meet demographic and work force demands.

  • Taxpayers deserve the best return on their investment in public education. When I sponsored the legislation in 2005 that created the Washington Learns commission, my main goal was to prompt a thorough review of the way our public education system is financed. Currently, the state pays school districts based on enrollment. But this is an antiquated model. Our funding system should promote academic success, not just pay for “seat time.”

    We need to make smarter investments if we expect better results. The final recommendations lay the groundwork by calling for a significant down payment in 2007 to improve basic education funding. They also encourage the longer-term effort of designing a new basic education funding formula.

  • Everyone benefits when children enter school ready to learn. Washington’s communities will be healthier, happier and more prosperous if we offer a public education system that better prepares our students for life in the global economy. We know that crime rates are lower, employment rates are higher and access to health care is better in communities that invest in high-quality education. We also know that an amazing amount of brain development happens in the first years of life, so we must lay the foundation early if we are to create a system of high-achieving learners. We would be wise to make bigger investments in early learning programs that prepare all students to thrive socially and academically.

    Acting upon a recommendation in Washington Learn’s 2005 interim report, the Legislature this year created a new state Department of Early Learning. The final report also calls for voluntary full-day kindergarten, beginning in impoverished schools around the state.

    The quality of Washington’s public schools affects every citizen, even those of us who already have excellent schools in our own community. Let your voice be heard: Read the commission’s report at www.washingtonlearns.wa.gov and tell your legislators where your priorities lie. Public schools belong to the public.

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