The false promise of ‘education reform’

Since her time as District of Columbia schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee has been the face of “education reform.” Regimenting testing for D.C. kids, she fired 241 teachers in one day alone in 2010 for low test scores. She fired a principal on camera. In turn, D.C. voters fired her mayoral patron in 2010 and she resigned. She now travels the country denouncing teachers, visiting our state in February, and selling books.

As some would have our state rush headlong into embracing Rhee’s agenda, the cheating scandal during her tenure is worth noting. A high-stakes testing reign of terror incentivized educators to erase wrong answers and substitute right ones in search of bonuses — primarily funded by the Wal-Mart Walton family — and simple job security. This “erase-to-the-top” begs questions about whether test scores really rose during Rhee’s tenure; tellingly, Rhee didn’t act on the evidence and cheaters were not fired.

Here, cheerleaders for “reform” ignore what’s already in place, and unfunded, in our state. In 2009, a substantial reform passed with promised full-funding by 2018. In its McCleary decision, the Washington Supreme Court wrote approvingly of the 2009 reform — finding, for example, it created one of the “best data systems in the country for studying the relationship between financial inputs and student achievement.”

However, the court warned it wouldn’t “idly stand by as the legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform.” That message has not reached a Republican State Senate led by a majority leader whose own kids go to a private school with $27,250 tuition. Among other changes, the Senate insists schools (but not senators) be graded A-through-F.

This facile approach ignores funding. The most accurate way to grade schools may be proximity to Lake Washington. Our state’s top-five high schools, according to U.S. News &World Report, are in Bellevue and Kirkland; home, ironically, to the legislators most ardent about “reforming” the schools of others. Senate Education Chair Steve Litzow, who represents Bellevue, is from Mercer Island, which boasts a high school ranked 14th statewide. Other privileged locales litter the top-20.

As McCleary noted: “Districts with high property values are able to raise more levy dollars than districts with low property values[.]” In non-judicious words, “It’s the money, stupid.” Yet this “savage inequality,” as education writer Jonathan Kozol once described it, goes unmentioned. And many of those pushing expensive changes to our education system, including charter schools, are among our state’s wealthiest opponents of more equitable taxation. Meanwhile, budget proposals make it clear K-12 pay Initiative 732 will go at least six years without funding.

I want my son, a public school student, to succeed. But I also want him to feel joy in school — an element slipping away in our tests-above-all-else obsession. As a kid, I attended a predominantly African-American elementary school in Portland, Oregon. I benefitted from diversity, loved reading, and wasn’t a math whiz. Yet I survived.

As a legislator, I recall hearing math and science teachers lauded in important speeches and wondering if art, music, reading or even physical education teachers would ever be commended. What about the whole mind and, indeed, whole body? For instance, am I alone in noting a correlation between childhood obesity and P.E. cutbacks to make room for teaching-to-tests?

In addition to unfunded reforms imposed upon an underfunded system, last year’s ballot brought an unfunded charter school initiative. Let’s fund our existing obligations before creating new ones. Let’s also learn from the Rhee debacle before we create pressures to pad test scores and further reduce young learners to mere letters. Kids like mine should not be guinea pigs for social science experiments.

Brendan Williams, a former legislator, lives in Olympia.

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