In 2005, the state Legislature directed the state Board of Education to find out whether public schools are fulfilling their mission to educate children.
The results are in. They show that, while some schools are excellent, officials at many schools have some work to do.
The results are reported in Washington Policy Center’s Public School Accountability Index, based on data collected by the State Board of Education.
The board’s data include test scores in reading, writing, math and science, and graduation rates. The state report uses a scale of 1 to 7 to place more than 2,000 Washington public schools in one of five performance categories: struggling, fair, good, very good and exemplary.
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The index shows nearly 60 percent of Washington students attend schools rated only fair or struggling. Less than 10 percent of students attend schools rated very good or exemplary.
Of the 65 schools in Olympia, Tumwater, North Thurston, Shelton and Elma, three ranked as exemplary – Aspire Middle School in North Thurston, Secondary Options in Tumwater and Jefferson Middle in Olympia. One school ranked as very good (Capital High School), while 17 ranked as good, 37 ranked as fair, and seven ranked as struggling. In all, 44 of the 65 schools in the Olympia area scored in the lowest two rankings.
How can so many Olympia-area public schools perform so poorly?
Despite what you often hear, the problem is not lack of money. Washington has doubled education spending, adjusted for inflation, since 1980, while the number of students has increased by only one-third. The people of Washington are generous in funding schools, providing $8 billion annually, or an average of $10,200 per student per year.
Elma School District officials spend $10,500 per student, yet three of its four schools rank as only fair. None of Shelton’s schools ranked higher than fair, even though officials there spend $10,670 per student.
Olympia spends less per student, $10,137, but more than half its schools scored in the top three categories.
Poverty and race are the most-cited reasons for poor educational performance, but at the area school that received the lowest score, the region’s New Market High Skills Center in Tumwater, 82 percent of the students are white and from middle- or upper-income families and only 29 percent qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.
We have learned that simply increasing education spending does not improve learning for students. Large school budgets certainly benefit the grown-ups in the system, but public schools should be about educating children, not providing good jobs for adults.
Instead, school districts need proven reforms in how they spend money.
For example, only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom, during layoffs the union requires that the youngest teachers are let go first, local principals are not allowed to hire the best teachers or fire bad ones, and innovative charter public schools are banned in our state.
Under the current system, principals have almost no influence over their school budget, staffing or educational program. Those decisions are made by the central administration.
Giving principals control over their budgets and letting them retain the best teachers would direct classroom resources where they are needed most.
In Washington state, parents and taxpayers deserve to know how their schools are doing, and no one wants to see a child stuck in a school considered just fair or struggling.
If local districts want help, there are many ideas to consider. Having an honest conversation about how schools are run would do more for children than simply increasing taxes and boosting budgets.
Liv Finne is the education director at Washington Policy Center, a nonpartisan independent policy research organization in Washington state.