The 2019 legislature missed out on a big opportunity this year. Instead of working to reform how our schools operate, the legislature took a step backwards by undoing much of the good work that was done in response to the McCleary court ruling just two years ago.
In 2017, Democrats and Republicans approved a bi-partisan school funding bill, reforming state and local property taxes to ensure that the state met its constitutional obligation to fully fund K-12 education. The law reduced inequities by capping local property taxes, so wealthy areas would not have an imbalanced benefit, by providing equitable state funding to all schools on a per-student basis. All parties, including Governor Inslee, lauded and moved forward with the agreement.
During this session, lawmakers went back on their word in an attempt to “remedy” the already remedied McCleary decision.
Only two years after the sensible school funding bill had passed, the legislature took steps to once again lift the lid on local taxation, risking a future in which the legislature is once again brought back into court over school funding inequities. These tactics are quixotic. They hurt the most vulnerable and under-sourced in our community, they also fail to deal with the inadequacies of the system itself.
Schools today are teaching students outdated skills designed for the industrial era. Students come to school and are lumped together by their age group, credits are offered based off of the amount of time spent in a seat, and students are reminded to go to the next class by a factory bell system. The system fails as it refuses to acknowledge that students have vastly different attentiveness, learning styles and readiness, inspirations, and home settings. By operating as a production line, we expect every child to have the same result once done with school.
Over the last 70 years, our entire society has changed, but our schools are still organized as they were in the early part of the 20th Century. Too often, educational leaders sidestep the true crux of our educational crisis: the system itself. This system has become obsolete in the information age. Many suggest that money is the problem, that funding is never enough. This is false. The system is the problem.
The issues within our education system do not come from the lack of money, they come from the lack of leadership. Legislators cannot continue avoiding telling districts to manage their money better and to quit kowtowing to union demands. It is hurting our children and hurting hard working citizens of Washington. A newly updated book, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education, however, proposes a promising opportunity to do something about it.
Former Seattle School Board President and author of Every School, Donald P. Nielsen, offers practical advice for a state legislature to actually fix the system. In his “game plan” he provides policy prescriptions that a state legislature should adopt: “Much of the money received by a district, from the state, comes with restrictions on how they money is to be spent. This is the result of decades of mistrust, at the legislative level, because of the mismanagement of money by superintendents and school boards.” This is why Nielsen offers legislation proposals for “leadership institutes” and appointed school boards because “School leaders, whether they are principals or superintendents, are not trained to lead their school/district. They are trained to manage their school/district.” Effective leadership would allow for, “a system where money follows the child, and also takes into account both the cost of living where the child lives and the cost to educate the child,” where it is most needed.
Without systemic change, the system will continue put teachers over student interests, promote distrust between stakeholders at all levels, and disallow the individuality required for students to thrive. Maybe it is time for Washington State to stop peering into the pockets of its citizens and take a long look at what it means to lead.