Let’s try 2 education approaches to see which 1 works better

For nearly 20 years, Washingtonians have debated how to improve public schools, a discussion that will continue again this fall with Initiative 1240, the charter-school initiative.

On one side, reformers promote ideas that do not require significant additional resources: charter schools or vouchers, privatized services, greater use of standardized tests and an easing of rules that make it difficult to get rid of ineffective teachers.

On the other side, public school supporters argue that improving student learning will require more money for smaller class sizes, retention of high-caliber teachers and additional staff members to support classroom instruction.

There is a simple and relatively inexpensive way to resolve the debate: Let’s try both approaches at the same time, compare them side by side and see which works best.

The Legislature should approve a pilot project at two high schools in our state where each approach could be fully implemented. Here’s how it would work: At the reformer’s high school, rules and regulations about curriculum, seat time, graduation, school calendar, collective bargaining and anything else related to the educational program would be waived. The school would receive the same pot of money that they would otherwise be apportioned from the state and be allowed to spend it any way they see fit. They could privatize bus, food and custodial services. They could offer bonuses to lure people from the private sector to the classroom. They could radically revamp the curriculum and school day.

At the other high school, all education requirements would remain in place with one change: the school would receive double the level of funding from the state that it received in the previous year. Staff members at the school would decide how to spend the money. Given the previous arguments of public school advocates, we would likely see more teachers, more specialists, more counselors, more special education staffers and more classroom assistants.

An independent public policy think tank would choose the two schools and would also develop a dozen benchmarks and assessments to measure success. The schools would need to have similar demographics, size and student achievement levels and similar levels of local levy funding but any other differences can be accounted for by the researchers who would analyze the results. At the end of the pilot project, the think tank would issue a report card with detailed results and recommendations for our public schools.

In order to make sure that any improvements are sustainable and are not just a temporary bump, the pilot project would run for at least four years, a complete high school graduation cycle. To ensure fairness, neither school would be allowed to receive funds from outside interest groups or donors and state funding after the initial year would increase (or decrease) at a level commensurate with funding increases (or decreases) at other high schools in the state.

Skeptics may argue that this pilot project would be too costly and disruptive, but it is certainly less costly than continuing to spend billions on a school system when we are divided on its overall direction.

The real challenge would come at the end of the pilot project when the results are in, recommendations are made and the course of action becomes clear. If the reform high school showed superior results, would citizens be ready to drop their long-standing support for collective bargaining protections and popular programs in the current public school system? Or, if the traditional (and better funded) school performs better, would citizens be willing to increase their taxes significantly in order to help all students succeed?

Or, regardless of the results, would citizens shrug their shoulders and say, “keep doing what you’re doing and don’t raise my taxes?”

The answer to these questions would tell us all we really need to know about the long-term future of public schools in Washington state.

Peter Rex, a professor of political science and history at South Puget Sound Community College, may be reached at prex@spscc.ctc.edu.