Burbank: A good education shouldn’t be a matter of wealth

By John Burbank

Today is the first day of class for some of the 1.1 million kids in our state who attend public school. For them, it’s a day of hope, anticipation, nervousness and snazzy outfits meant to impress the cool kids who haven’t seen them in three months.

Public K-12 education is the backbone of our democracy. With quality public education, our kids learn how to think critically, how to get along, and how to deal with success and failure. They learn for life, exploring their capabilities as students, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, workers, thinkers and doers.

Too often, people measure public education’s success solely through test scores. These “experts” focus on math, science and writing, measured by multiple-choice bubbles on a test, with answers that can only be right or wrong.

But success in life can’t be reduced to choosing A, B, C or all of the above; our world demands much more than that. That’s why elite private schools, such as the Lakeside School in Seattle, have small classes and focus on discussions and analyses. Instead of rote memorization, the students can explore issues from a variety of perspectives, finding the gray areas in problems that don’t have black-and-white solutions. At Lakeside, the average class for middle and high school students has 17 students. That means a teacher can engage every child.

That’s not true for our public schools, where the average class size hovers at about 29 students per teacher. That’s average class size, meaning some classes are even bigger. About 1 in 5 kids in ninth grade fails at least one core course a year. And 17 percent of kids miss at least 18 school days a year — that’s three and a half weeks. These are kids who aren’t engaged, and can easily be missed in large classes.

Too bad that this year, the Legislature failed yet again to fully fund K-12 education and shrink class sizes. They didn’t even come close.

Our kids bear the brunt of this failure to fund. Before the Legislature disbanded the Quality Education Council in 2016, it created benchmarks on what constitutes fully funding public education. This year, the Legislature only barely passed the halfway mark for full funding. They shorted the average student about $6,000; that translates to less access to teachers, less counseling for getting into college, fewer classes, more fees, older textbooks and fewer computers. For students in poverty, the gap is even greater: a shortfall of more than $8,000 per year.

One way that parents make up for funding shortfalls is through their parent-teacher associations, volunteering at school and helping kids with their homework. Filling in the gaps of public education has become an exhausting and time-consuming enterprise, as parents can no longer rely on schools to prepare their children for graduation.

Across the state, over 93 percent of kids are in public school. That’s true for the 93 percent of kids in Everett and the 95 percent of kids in Snohomish County. It’s an almost-universal experience in which nearly everyone in the state participates.

Except for Seattle, where the affluent segregate their children in gated institutions. In Seattle, 1 out of every 4 children is in private school. It’s a tiered society, with opportunities reserved for children of parents with means and all of the others fighting over scraps. And while private schools like to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, they have effectively barred the door. Lakeside, for example, costs $33,280 per year. Their pupils include 15 Hispanic children and one Native American child out of a student body of 851.

This segregated system of private and public schools undermines the sense of common purpose and common commitment to education. People who pay more than $30,000 a year for their kid’s private school have no interest in funding public education for the masses. The newly affluent from Seattle’s Amazon-Google-Facebook-Microsoft explosion are taking care of their own and leaving everyone else behind.

We could meet the paramount duty for the education of all children in our state. We just have to find the political will to tax the affluent and invest that money in public education. Then, our public school system will be able to adequately provide students with the skills to enter the workforce or enroll in college. We can’t afford to take that opportunity away from them.

John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, www.eoionline.org. Email him at john@eoionline.org.

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