Dollars alone won’t ensure first-rate public schools

The News TribuneMarch 25, 2013 

Last year’s McCleary decision is not just about money.

As the Washington Supreme Court noted 14 months ago, the state constitution mandates that the Legislature “make ample provision for the education” of all the state’s children.

What does “education” mean? The court defined it – logically – as “the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy.”

It’s a question of quality as well as quantity.

You could spend fortunes feeding fast food to kids, and they’ll grow up malnourished. Likewise, the Legislature could dump another $5 billion a year into the K-12 system without offering students the skills they need to survive in the 21st-century economy. More money is necessary, but not sufficient.

Lawmakers this year have been taking important steps toward improving the quality of public education in Washington.

One pair of bills would create a date certain – July 1, 2015 – for increasing high school graduation requirements to 24 credits from the current 20.

More important, the credits must mean something. The plan is to align graduation requirements with college admission requirements. Students shouldn’t just be given a piece of paper when they graduate; they need the intellectual tools to succeed in a four-year college, two-year college or technical-vocational program.

As things stand, many students – especially from low-income families – have only a foggy understanding of what college demands. They often wind up with a hodgepodge of credits that don’t add up to a marketable high school diploma.

The legislation wisely combines the new requirements with money for more guidance counseling.

Counseling can give a confused student a clear road map toward future success. This is especially important for students whose parents and other relatives never got past high school. Many drift in school and don’t realize that higher education is within their reach with available financial aid.

A second pair of bills addresses another quality issue: heightened emphasis on scientific, technical, engineering and math coursework – “STEM.”

House Bill 1872 and Senate Bill 5755 would pull together the state’s existing STEM initiatives into a unified campaign under an alliance drawn from schools, businesses and other organizations versed in science-based education. The group would track and promote efforts to get kids into math and scientific courses that can lead to high-demand, high-pay jobs.

Some aren’t drawn to a science-intensive career, but no student should be excluded from one for lack of opportunity.

The Legislature has a long way to go on McCleary. These measures are a down payment on the promise of quality – which must accompany the promise of full funding.

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