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July 25, 2014 at 12:01 PM

When we fail to educate our children, our future is bleak

Head shot Frank Blethen, publisher, SEditor’s note: These are remarks Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen made to the Rotary Club of Seattle, which is also known as Rotary Club No. 4, on Wednesday.

Good afternoon.

As a former member and program chair of Rotary No. 4, speaking to you is a privilege. A privilege that brings with it an obligation to use this forum constructively, which is precisely what I intend to do.

I will address the most important public policy issue in my 34 years as a newspaper publisher in Washington state: the sad condition of our state’s public education system,  a system that fails a shocking number of our children, and imperils our state’s economic future and quality of life. It is a system that fails us at every level: K-12, early learning, post-secondary.

Consider these unacceptable outcomes:

K-12:

We graduate only 18 percent of our high-school students work-ready or college-ready. Let’s break that number down: One-quarter of our high school students fail to graduate.  Of those who do graduate, barely half enter post-secondary education, such as college or workforce training. Of those, half of them require remedial help. The result?  Only 18 percent are actually college- or work-ready.

This translates into an almost unfathomable 82 percent failure rate from our K-12 system.

Early Education (pre-K):

The research is unequivocal. The majority of brain development takes place before children enter school. Yet, this year we failed to fund more than 25,000 qualified 3- and 4-year-olds for even the most basic early learning.

That’s 25,000 of our toddlers we have kicked to the curb for a lifetime of unemployment, minimum wage and even jail. We repeat this year after year, knowing that quality preschool is the basic foundation of a functional education system and the evolution of a successful adult citizen.

Hallelujahs to Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess and to Mayor Ed Murray for their courage in providing leadership for Seattle to become a model for the state and nation in how to develop a high quality, outcome-based, egalitarian pre-K system.

College and Post-Secondary Education

Our state’s college system is a great irony. Our 32 community and technical colleges and our six four-year baccalaureate universities all boast strong quality and excellent graduation rates.

  • We have severely restricted access through unconscionable state disinvestment and underfunding.
  • We have invoked unacceptably high student taxes — so-called tuition
  • And we have fostered unbearable student debt.

The consequence is that our production of baccalaureate degrees is among the worst in the nation — 46th worst, to be precise.

—-

How we got to these terrible outcomes is a sad, several-decade saga of:

  • Legislative disinvestment
  • Public disinterest
  • And voter lethargy

The bubble economy preceding our 2008 financial collapse blinded us to any number of serious public policy issues, including the steady deterioration of our state’s public education system.

The subsequent “new reality economy” we now live in is forcing us to face up to our broken public education system, and how that system is fueling the ever-growing, wealth and opportunity gaps — gaps that undermine democracy and stability as well as economic vibrancy.

A $15 minimum wage makes for good Seattle Times headlines. Unfortunately, it will not stop growing inequality, or fix a sluggish and uncertain economy.

Education is the one proven way to create jobs, reduce unemployment and begin to close our wealth and opportunity fault lines.

The good news? Is there good news? Do we have time to right the sinking public education ship?

Yes, we do. But first, it takes awareness of the crisis and an understanding of the unacceptable outcomes.  This is a matter of the long-term well-being for every one of us and our families. It is the moral obligation we have to make this again the land of opportunity — to make Washington state an economic juggernaut where an individual’s future is determined by the individual and the quality of the public education system and not by the zip code they are born in or live in.

The first step is awareness and acknowledgement. That is the easy part. The tougher part is the will to change. Can we embrace the current unacceptable outcomes with the outrage they deserve? Let’s hope so — the window is short.

From today through the end of the 2015 legislative session is a critical period.

Here is what you need to know:

The Supreme Court

Two years ago our state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a case, which has come to be known as the McCleary decision. The Seattle Times cautiously agreed with their ruling that the Legislature needs to spend more money on education. Indeed, we hoped this would become a catalyst for spending in the two areas of serious underfunding: early education and higher education. And that it would accelerate the reforms needed to improve our abysmal K-12 outcomes.

However, we were uneasy because of our belief that the Supreme Court made two errors:

  1. That our constitution limits our paramount education responsibilities to only K-12, which is certainly not the case in terms of providing an adequate education in today’s world.
  1. That they seem to be indicating money is the only thing that matters in K-12, and not outcomes.

Unfortunately, our caution at that time has proved well-founded. Subsequently, the court has embarked on a dangerous path by insinuating itself into the job of the Legislature with an erroneous message that only money and only K-12 matters.

The Washington Education Association

You also need to know about the Washington Education Association.

The vast majority of K-12 teachers are thoughtful, caring professionals who deserve far more admiration then they receive. And deserve far better representation than the WEA gives them. Instead of representing teachers as true professionals, the WEA has been the defender of the status quo, which means perpetuating the bad K-12 outcomes that fail to graduate or prepare 82 percent of our kids for college or work.

Three recent examples:

  1. The WEA is suing to overturn the voter-approved charter-schools initiative, just as the first charter schools prepare to open.
  2. Earlier this year, WEA officials goaded lawmakers into a decision that caused Washington to become the first state in the nation to lose its waiver under the No Child Left Behind law and to cause school districts to lose control over $41 million to help children most in need.
  3. The final example is the WEA’s misguided Initiative 1351, which is on this fall’s ballot.

On the surface, I-1351 looks like a good thing — reducing class size. However, the research is clear: After the first three grades, across-the-board reduction in classroom size would not improve our lousy outcomes. What would improve is the dues coffer of the WEA, by several million dollars a year.

McCleary, plus 1351

If the Supreme Court is successful in its McCleary effort and the WEA is successful with their dues-expansion program, the consequences are truly devastating. Our state biennium general fund is about $33.8 billion. K-12 already receives about 45 percent, or about $15 billion. (Higher education receives about 8 percent  or $2.7 billion; early education receives less than 1 percent.)

Each of these two actions would cost about $3.5 billion, resulting in about $7 billion in increased taxes and diversion of funding from other parts of the budget.

This would devastate funding for early education, post-secondary education and much of our social-service system, including our critical needs in foster care and mental illness.

But another irony:

Even if all this came to fruition and we could actually pump $7 billion into K-12, the bad K-12 outcomes would not change, and the destructive lack of access to early education and post secondary would continue.

Is this the Washington we want to live in? I don’t think so.

We should be proud that ours is the only state in the union whose Constitution declares that education is the paramount duty of the state and that the state must provide an “adequate” education for all of its children.

In today’s world, an adequate education is 3 to 23 and beyond.

  • Early education is the foundation of later school success and a productive, healthy adult life.
  • A healthy K-12 system with great outcomes for all is essential for our state’s future, as we increasingly compete against other states and other countries.
  • Affordable access to post secondary, from our production of baccalaureate degrees to technical training is absolutely essential in today’s world.

There is simply no investment the state could make with a greater return than education at every level. But at every level, it is critical that those precious tax investment dollars have transparency, accountability and are tied to outcomes — outcomes that can put us on the path for long-term prosperity and well-being.

Back to the question: Do we have the will? This Rotary Club and everybody in this room has the power to make a difference. But the time is running short.

Rotary No. 4 has always set a standard for “service above self.” Stepping up to this issue — quality public school outcomes — is the most important service Rotary No. 4 could provide.

There is a lot of rhetoric and misinformation about education these days. Stay focused on the handful of outcomes that matter.

  • All children should start kindergarten ready to learn.
  • Children who fall behind, at whatever grade level, must get the help they need.
  • All students should graduate high school ready to go to college or vocational training.

We should not fail a single one of our children.

Use your influence and your megaphone to help inspire and motivate our community. Ask informed education questions of candidates for the Legislature. Stay in touch with your elected representatives and consistently express your concern. This is about our future, and it’s about our children.

Will Washington state maintain the failed status quo? Or will we become a national/world model for creating a high-functioning successful public-education system?

The choice is yours.

Thank you.

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