While Washington's students are working hard to meet some of the toughest academic standards in the nation, the adults involved in supporting public education are quick to point the finger at each other when it comes to finding long-term solutions to K-12 challenges.
This blame game has to stop. It’s not fair to our kids or their future employers in a competitive global world. Instead, all stakeholders need to make a system-wide, ideological shift in how we value, organize and fund public education long-term.
We know the economic forecast does not bode well for K-12 education. North Thurston Public Schools is facing an estimated reduction of more than $6 million in state and federal funding over the next two years. Local voters are asked to bear more of the tax burden every year which is not sustainable or good for student learning.
Our students deserve a reliable funding source for public education, instead of the constant “give and take” by the state in recent years. In return, school districts need to be accountable to taxpayers in how we spend available dollars and take steps to maintain healthy reserves for difficult times like these.
In addition to stable funding, we need to address the fragmentation of our current education system. From changing assessments and reforms, to teacher evaluations and graduation requirements, the state continues to grapple with challenges through a disconnected system of task forces, pilot projects, boards and policies.
For example, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s website (www.k12.wa.us) shows more than 17 public and independent “Partners in Education.” There are also five legislative committees for K-12 education. While their common goal of student achievement is noble, consolidating some of these efforts could help streamline our efforts and create a more seamless education system to better serve the needs of all students statewide.
If we truly want our children to learn what they need to be college and career-ready and compete with the rest of the world, we also need to be more flexible with school calendars, policies and contracts. Is our antiquated September-to-June school year calendar really what’s best for kids? Currently, most U.S. students are only in class about six hours a day, 180 days a year, compared to China where students reportedly study between 8-12 hours a day, or Japan, where students are in school 243 days a year.
Of course, more time does not by itself equal success. Intentional, targeted, quality instruction has to be part of the equation, along with community engagement. Schools today are expected to meet more social/emotional and basic needs of struggling students. Parents and community members can donate time and resources to help provide student supports, from math and mentoring, to scholarships and school supplies.
We must also free teachers, principals, and other staff from unnecessary bureaucratic burdens and restrictions. Increased flexibility in the use of existing funding sources would allow us and other school districts to better coordinate services based upon student needs rather than operating multiple programs in isolation due to external rules and regulations.
Labor unions can be more open to flexibility in contracts and practices that coordinate delivery of services to students without unnecessary barriers. As administrators, we need to hold ourselves and our staffs more accountable and make the tough decisions that truly put student learning at the center of all we do.
I hope for the sake of all our students, we can pull together and show the nation that the state of Washington recognizes the priceless value of quality public education.
Let’s join hands to make it happen.
Raj Manhas is superintendent of North Thurston Public Schools, the largest and most diverse school district in Thurston County.