Conventional wisdom says that education is underfunded. In fact, lack of funding for education is the primary reason legislators are seriously considering a state income tax. However, on Friday, the House of Representatives proved that there are some things more important than education dollars.
A bill that would make the state more competitive for federal education funding, SB 6696, had already passed the Senate and was being considered by the House. President Obama created a grant program called “Race to the Top” which provides grants to states that have a plan to reform education and close the achievement gaps in failing schools.
In an effort to improve Washington’s chances, this bill creates another accountability system that rewards good schools and punishes bad schools. It also creates another evaluation system for teachers, provides for the demotion of principals in failing schools, and tries to reduce class sizes.
What the bill does not do, however, is allow competition for the current public school establishment. This is relevant to the state’s ability to get funds because President Obama has specifically mentioned innovative schools, like charter school programs, as the type of reform proposals he is interested in funding. However, when Rep. Doug Erickson proposed an amendment that would have created precisely the kind of innovation, it was rejected.
Had it been adopted, the amendment would have given local school districts the opportunity to create innovative school zones with schools that had local control over salaries, school hours, length of the school year, and even waived the requirement that teachers be certified by the state. Similar policies that give principals control over curriculum, personnel, and the budget have been very successful in other states. The amendment also would have made union membership optional.
It would benefit parents by providing new options for their child’s education. It would benefit students by providing alternatives to failing schools. It would benefit school districts by allowing them to innovate if they think it would be appropriate for their community. Everyone involved would have more freedom and more choice. That seems so American. It would even benefit the state because innovative schools always receive less money per student than traditional public schools.
What’s not to like?
If you’re a teacher’s union, quite a bit. Once competition is introduced, students will leave the failing schools for successful schools. Parents and teachers don’t care about the politics or the control. They just want a quality education. As tax dollars follow students from unsuccessful traditional public schools to more successful innovative schools, fewer teachers will be employed within failing schools and fewer teachers will be members of the union. Some would even close. That is the unacceptable risk embedded in this proposal.
With this vote, legislators choose not to create policy that is very likely to be good for education in favor of policy that will maximize the number of teachers employed by the state. This unfortunate choice highlights a fact every Washingtonian should be aware of: the primary goal of our education system is to employ teachers, not educate.
Of course none of this is meant to imply in any way that the teachers involved in the education system don’t care passionately about education. In fact, the teachers I know are more frustrated with the handcuffs from the state’s dogmatic opposition to innovation than I could ever be. Still, decisions like this continue to highlight the fact that the law does not have quality education as its primary goal.
Of course legislators would like a portion of the $4 billion for education—just as long as it doesn’t threaten the status quo.