The “education governor” meme is the meme to end all memes. If only the meme had meaning.
In his Inaugural address on Wednesday, soon-to-be-governor Jay Inslee will declare himself the education governor, or some codeword equivalent that traces innovation and boldness back to K-12 and higher ed. Washington’s last bona fide education governor, Booth Gardner, elbowed for standards-based education and high-school graduation requirements that many legislators aim to reverse. A tangle of teacher-union politics, silos of administration that employ their own oblique language, and twice as many school districts as the state needs conspire to make the reform hill that much steeper. It’s a scalable slope, however, and after the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, it’s become a have-to, not simply a poll-tested slogan.
Reform means giving teeth to the notion of “seamless.” A vibrant higher-ed system flows from a K-12 system that fully prepares kids for college. Middle school is the critical juncture when more students require individualized attention to navigate algebra and other hoops. Elementary school is the underpinning for lifelong literacy. And we know through brain-development research, early learning is the foundation.
Seamless is an all-hands strategy. That means consolidating the state’s various education fiefdoms under one roof. Retiring Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed a state Department of Education, and it merits consideration provided it’s tied to other systemic reforms.
“We need a single, cabinet-level Department of Education to unite the state’s multiple education agencies to ensure priorities are aligned and the focus remains on students,” Gregoire writes in the Seattle Times. “The secretary should be recruited from the best and the brightest across the country. “
The great unspoken in the Gregoire brainstorm is the Office of the Superintendant of Public Instruction, a relic of the nineteenth century that should have been jettisoned a generation ago (it will take a constitutional amendment to accomplish the latter.) The overarching mission, one that puts students first, is a single, accountable agency that strings together interdependent parts. Each part in turn recognizes its link to an indivisible whole.
Imagine UW President Michael Young and WSU President Elson Floyd out on the hustings pushing for K-12 and early learning, just as vigorously as higher ed. With university leaders seeking a funding infusion in exchange for a tuition freeze, a team approach is a reasonable expectation. Getting education leaders out of their comfort zone is the first step in a comprehensive strategy that buoys students and allows old thinking to fall away.