Commentary: State has duty to fix, fund public school system

By Shaun Strom

When it comes to re-imagining our state’s public schools, we are at a pivotal moment. Washingtonians have the opportunity to bring fundamental fairness to our education system.

We have this opportunity thanks to the decision reached by the Washington State Supreme Court in McCleary vs. State of Washington. In this landmark case, the court found that the state had failed its basic duty to provide adequate funding for our schools. It directed our legislative leaders to find a fix and ensure a fair and equitable distribution of school funding.

The need for a fix is clear to anyone who cares to look. Twenty percent of Washington’s high school students — 1 out of every 5 — never finish high school. African-American and Latino kids from low-income households have an even harder time. Over 30 percent of these students never graduate.

When we go beyond such statewide numbers and look at specific communities, you find the same poor results. Many families are doing their best to stay above water and hope their kids are getting what they need to be ready for what comes after high school. And I am balancing working a day job, going to school, and serving in the National Guard while helping raise my two daughters.

Results like these fail our kids. They are not learning to their full potential or being given an equal opportunity to put their talents to use.

These results fail our state too. We need an educated, diverse workforce that is ready for the careers of the future. If we don’t achieve that we put Washington’s prosperity at risk.

We need to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by McCleary; and real progress isn’t just a question of more money. The system we have now is unequal and unfair. So we cannot just pour new money in and expect different results. Instead, we need real policy changes that will guarantee that our system will work for all kids, including kids in communities like mine.

Such a policy vision starts with fair funding. We need a system that will ensure that our education dollars are distributed equitably and fairly. What does this mean? It means that we spend our money so that every child gets an equal chance at success. This must include providing more funding and resources for low-income students, students who are learning English, homeless students and foster students.

The second step is to ensure that we have a pipeline of qualified teachers for our most under-served students. We can do this with a teacher compensation system that rewards excellent teachers, especially those who teach in hard-to-staff schools.

Better accountability is the third crucial part. As we invest more in our schools, Washingtonians rightly expect this money to be well spent. For that reason, we need a strong accountability system that sets clear goals, tracks them over time and provides transparency about the support and programs targeted to under-performing schools and struggling students.

Our elected leaders in Olympia need to hear us. They need to understand that we are no longer content with a system that shortchanges our kids, allows the achievement gap to grow and lets our state fall further behind. They need to understand that we aren’t going to sit on the sidelines.

We’re going to be part of the solution.

Shaun Strom is in the National Guard and has served two terms of duty in Afghanistan. He lives in Marysville.

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