Jim Walsh – What’s paramount is a fresh way to look at funding and conducting education

The Daily World –

Article 9 of the Washington State Constitution describes our obligations to public education. Here’s an excerpt:

“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. … The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools. The public school system shall include common schools, and such high schools, normal schools, and technical schools as may hereafter be established.”

We make that ample provision for the education of all children. The problem is that it isn’t managed very well.

In Grays Harbor County, we spend more than four times as much each year on K-12 education than we do on the county’s general fund. (The annual operating budget for the Aberdeen School District — about $40 million — is larger than the County’s annual general operating fund — about $31 million.) There are 15 school districts in the county, with an aggregate operating budget of over $130 million a year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in Grays Harbor County there are fewer than 15,000 people younger than age 18. That means we spend about $8,700 per child each year on education. That’s more than the annual in-state tuition at Central Washington University.

Why do so few people understand how much we spend on K-12 education? Because school funding is a complicated mess. We pay property taxes to the county and local tax districts, sales taxes to the state and income taxes to the federal government. The state keeps part of the taxes we pay and sends some back to local school districts. The Feds keep part of the taxes we pay and send some back to the state, which keeps some again and sends what’s left to the school districts.

The money that comes back to school districts from the state and Feds has various conditions for how it can be used. This is more than the “uniform system” the state constitution requires. It’s control over reading lists and curriculums. It’s No Child Left Behind. And Common Core. All enforced by bureaucrats who don’t answer to voters.

Yielding control to bureaucrats is a bad idea. They make lots of mistakes. The Feds gutted this state’s timber industry, damaging a key source of money for K-12 education. Washington schools are supposed to be funded, in part, by proceeds from logging on state-owned land. This arrangement worked well for decades. But restrictions on logging backed by extremists in Seattle and D.C. mean less money for our schools.

Instead, we’re supposed to ask the federal government to make up the difference with grants. That makes our schools beggars, dependent on hand-outs. It’s not a sustainable solution.

Rather than doing something to avoid this begging and dependency, our state government engages in political theater that generates much sound and fury but signifies nothing.

McCleary v. State of Washington was a test case backed by a lobbying organization affiliated with several teachers’ unions. It asked state courts to order the legislature to fund certain new expenses (totaling about $2 billion) that included raising teachers’ salaries, capping the size of some classes and providing more school-related transportation. The state Supreme Court agreed. The Court made some valid points in the McCleary decision — ruling the state has to “fund education first,” even if that means cuts to other programs — but it also took several cheap rhetorical swipes at the state legislature. And the decision may have violated the constitutional separation of powers. So, implementation goes slowly.

Initiative 1351, passed by voters in November 2014, was another project backed by union-affiliated front groups. It demanded various “improvements,” related primarily to reducing class sizes even more than McCleary did. But the initiative provided no mechanism for funding any of its demands. It was a “feel-good” measure — which is one reason that the state legislature has largely ignored it.

Just last week, word circulated around the state Capitol that the legislature will send a “corrected” version of I-1351, which will include some funding mechanism (that means a several-billion-dollar tax increase) back to voters to reconsider.

The McCleary decision and I-1351 do very little to improve the education of any child. They just add inefficiency to a K-12 education system that some interest groups see primarily as a jobs program.

The state constitution doesn’t describe it like that.

Finally, we need to recognize the changes going on around us. If you have children or grandchildren, you’ve seen how plugged in they are to the Internet and electronic media. Technology is changing how children learn, read and think. And it’s changing education, making it massively decentralized and customizable to every child’s needs. Most school districts know this and are trying to change their methods to include more Internet- and computer-based learning. They need to do more.

Decentralized learning is a good thing. It’s efficient and cost-effective. It can blur old distinctions between conventional classroom learning and home schooling. Most importantly, it provides families and local school districts the autonomy to teach their children in ways that suit each child’s skills and needs — as long as they meet the uniform standards set by the legislature.

Keeping that local control is more important than begging for more hand-outs.

Jim Walsh lives in Aberdeen, in an old house that he and his wife are gradually fixing up, and owns a technical-book publishing company. He’s also Vice Chairman of the Washington State Republican Party.

– See more at: http://thedailyworld.com/opinion/columnist/jim-walsh-what-s-paramount-fresh-way-look-funding-and-conducting-education#sthash.UbNDJOT1.dpuf

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