Superintendent Dorn has been wrong a lot lately

January 11, 2013 

Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, has been wrong a lot lately. I first noticed this when he offered his ideal education budget. Dorn proposed what he claimed was required by the state Supreme Court ruling on education funding, but he cherry-picked some expenditures, added some new spending of keen interest to the union he used to work for and recommended no policy reforms suggested by the court ruling.

Using rough numbers, his proposed budget adds $2 billion per year in state spending. To put this in perspective, the state provides $6 billion per year currently; total spending for a million students is $10 billion. What services improvements will families see with a 20 percent increase? A slight increase in the number of teachers for those in grades K-3, full-day kindergarten for 31,000 students, and possibly more materials and supplies.

Does that account for $2 billion? Of course not. The rest of the funds are to pay more without changing the services to families.

Union officials and cooperating school boards have diverted nearly $1 billion a year from levy funds to enhance the pay of adults while the service level declines with a shorter school year and more half-days.

Likewise, levies also fund a growing number of additional employees. A recent study showed that in a 17-year time period during which student enrollment grew by 17 percent, the number of staff increased by 34 percent. Now our school system employs one adult for every 10 students

Dorn’s budget takes the bill for these employee costs and covers it from the state general fund with no questions asked and no limits on these practices in the future. This frees up more local funds for the next round of negotiations and only perpetuates the cycle. Levies remain intact, levy-funded bonuses are still permitted, and no policy to lower levies is on the horizon.

The state Supreme Court said, “fundamental reforms are needed for Washington to meet its constitutional obligation to its students. Pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed.” But Dorn takes the exact opposite approach: more funds and no reforms.

I would ignore a flawed SPI budget request, since most everyone else does already, but two other errors have occurred.

When the voters of this state expressed their will to add public charter schools to the range of options available for families to get their education needs met, Dorn expressed his desire to sue the people.

The superintendent notes that the state constitution says he “shall have supervision” over matters pertaining to public schools. He believes that setting learning targets, allocating funds and enforcing professional practices for charter schools is not enough supervision.

It is hypocritical to sue over public charter schools but to ignore Running Start, skills centers, private special education service providers, dropout retrieval contractors or other education service providers which further depart from the monopoly control he seeks.

The final example of the error of Dorn’s ways is his intention to end two of the five basic competency tests required for a high school diploma. He states that measuring student learning is too costly and that tests encourage schools spend too much time devoted learning the tested subject matter.

At a time when the rest of the world is reaching higher levels of education than the United States, this is a giant step backward. A basic, pass-fail competency measure is one of the few forms of accountability we have for the education system, the schools, the educators and the students.

It is wrong to suggest that we have a billion dollars to add to employee compensation, but not enough money to give educators, students and families a real understanding of whether the $10 billion—wait, make that $12 billion—we spend on education actually produces an educated citizen.

Jami Lund is the education reform fellow at the Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Olympia.

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