State needs complete, cohesive approach to education; send us your ideas

The OlympianMarch 15, 2013 

Ever since the state Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary case that the Legislature has failed its constitutional obligation to fully fund K-12 education, the public conversation has revolved almost entirely around where to find the money. Much less debate has occurred about what schools would do with any additional funding, if and when lawmakers find it.

Operating in a vacuum of long-term education planning, several state lawmakers have been introducing piecemeal attempts at education reform this session – some of them cookie-cutter bills copied from national reform organizations. Such short-term thinking perpetuates our state’s fragmented approach to education.

The state has separated K-12 from higher education, and both from early learning. The Legislature has a different committee for all three areas, and there is little overlap.

To its credit, legislators eliminated the old Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2011. It had become overly bureaucratic and lacked a clear purpose.

In its place, the Legislature created the Washington Student Achievement Council, and directed its nine-members to develop a 10-year roadmap for closing the state’s educational attainment level. They added early learning and K-12 into the WSAC’s scope in order to focus on students and to provide a holistic view of our education system.

The council’s statewide listening tour rolled through Olympia last week to gather public feedback on its five-point action plan, which it has prepared in advance of delivering a final report to the Legislature later this year.

The WSAC plan hits the well-known topics: preparing children for school and inspiring them to graduate; keeping higher education affordable; building institutional capacity; using technology to make college more convenient and finding a sustainable funding plan.

Voluminous amounts of data support these as important issues. One in four students will drop out of high school, and that number rises to 37 percent for students of color. Nearly a third of high school graduates do not enroll in higher education within five years.

We can trace those sad statistics back to the need for more pre-school education and that higher education demand has increased by 23 percent in the past decade – creating more competition for enrollment – even as tuition rates have skyrocketed 151 percent.

We hope WSAC’s final report will get more specific about how to help the large number of students who don’t graduate from high school and those graduates who don’t go on to higher education. In particular, the 10-year Roadmap should spell out an enlarged role for our state’s community colleges.

Today’s high schools concentrate on preparing students for college. There is no statewide comprehensive program for preparing students for technical or vocational careers.

That’s partly because four separate entities share decision-making on technical education policy: WSAC, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, the Workforce Development Board and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Other states and nations provide high school students with a secondary education pipeline, separate from college preparedness. In some of these programs, for example, students can choose to spend their junior and senior years in technical training and apprenticeship programs.

By incorporating a cohesive and comprehensive approach to technical training and workforce development into its 10-year plan, the Student Achievement Council can address the needs of thousands of young people for whom college is not the best option.

JOIN OUR WHATCOM COUNTY COMMUNITY CONVERSATION
We’re interested in sharing your ideas about how to improve the state’s education system and the priorities you would set to fund the system. Whatcom County residents are invited to send responses of 400 words to Julie.Shirley@bellinghamherald.com. They will be published in upcoming issues of The Bellingham Herald.

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