Education reform moving forward in Washington state

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 25, 2013 

As a parent, I want all Washington children to have the chance to receive a world-class education at their neighborhood public schools. As a taxpayer, I want to be confident that the money I'm providing for education is being spent wisely, effectively and with accountability.

And as a state legislator, I have the privilege of working on both of these concerns.

At present, we know that not every school in Washington is one we can be proud of, and we know that only a sustained effort to implement meaningful reforms will give students and taxpayers what they deserve. Fortunately, that effort is well underway, and a major piece of education reform recently signed into law by Gov. Inslee could be the most significant in years. It's designed to identify Washington's failing schools - those that are officially dubbed "lowest-performing" schools - and put them on a path not just to success, but to excellence. My experience as a school board member made me a firm believer in the value of local control of schools, but that same experience also convinced me that some problems were so big that we would have to harness the expertise and resources of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in the service of those local schools that need help the most.

I started working seriously on a plan to lift all failing schools toward excellence last year, after visiting schools throughout the state and almost every school in the 40th District. I refined it while serving on the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Education Accountability prior to the 2013 session.

What struck me as unfair was the disparity of opportunities available at different schools within the same school district. I can remember so clearly visiting two schools in a school district. One was outstanding and clearly a great school to attend. The other was frankly depressing, and it upset me terribly that we were putting our young students in that school. We were essentially picking winners and losers in life based on which neighborhood school these kids were assigned to. That's wrong, and there's a solution.

Our new law directs the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to develop criteria to determine which schools fall into the lowest-performing category and to create definite guidelines to help them improve. We'll provide funds to help the schools, if necessary, and they'll have three years to make marked improvement. If they haven't made significant, measurable leaps forward during that time, the superintendent will have the authority to intervene with more structured guidance.

The language of the bill as signed by the governor - language contained in a striking amendment that I sponsored in the House - recognizes that every school contains hard-working and talented teachers, dedicated administrators, and most important, students who are more than capable of learning. It recognizes that every school is unique, as are its problems - that one size doesn't fit all. One school might require access to professional development opportunities for staff and an effort to build more parental involvement. Another could benefit from curriculum recommendations or closer collaboration with its school board on how to make decisions about allocating resources. We won't know until we do the assessment, but we do know this:

Every child who leaves our K-12 system should be equipped to be successful, whether they're going to college, to tech school, into the military or straight into the workplace. As a state, it is our clear responsibility to make decisions about school funding and education reform that help us reach that goal. Every child with a good education is an asset to the economy and quality of life in our state, and now, more than ever, we need to recognize how valuable our assets are.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rep. Kristine Lytton, D., represents the 40th District, which includes the southern half of Bellingham, San Juan County and parts of Skagit and Whatcom counties, in the Washington state House of Representatives.

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