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Originally published January 29, 2012 at 7:51 AM | Page modified January 29, 2012 at 3:05 PM

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JUST FIX IT | Losing kids on the path to prosperity

Washington state's educational system is imperiled by the Legislature's failure to prioritize learning from cradle to college. Skimping on the prekindergarten budget, cutting the K-12 system without reforming it and draining funding from higher education are shortsighted budget decisions that threaten our economic future.

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Early learning Prekindergarten

THE SITUATION:

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn appropriately casts early learning as a "dropout retrieval" program. Research shows that high-quality pre-K saves school districts about $3,700 per child over the K-12 years. Another $1,000 per child is saved in money that would have been spent on health care, drug prevention, child protection and juvenile justice.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN:

Washington state will get up to $60 million in federal funding over the next four years to improve pre-K access and quality. But the crucial role of preparing students for school is challenged by anemic state funding and a waitlist of 4,000 kids.

ACTION PLAN:

First, ensure access to early-learning opportunities for children from the neediest families. Next, middle-income families. The state Department of Early Learning points to studies suggesting those families often have the least access to pre-K because they cannot afford the tuition and do not qualify for public preschool.


Elementary school Kindergarten through fifth grade

THE SITUATION:

Efforts to prepare Washington students for college or career training start early, ensuring students are building the right academic skills at each grade level. The longer a student struggles, the more difficult and expensive it is to improve academic performance.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN:

Despite an intense national and local focus on literacy, a third of Washington's third-grade students read below grade level. Third grade is the line of demarcation where students shift from learning how to read to reading to learn about everything from civics to math. Coursework becomes increasingly difficult for struggling readers.

ACTION PLAN:

The state Legislature should approve the powerful innovations promised in House Bills 2606 and 2428, creating limited charter schools and key partnerships between universities and low-performing schools. It is also time to begin providing the adequate funding underscored in the state Supreme Court's recent ruling on education funding.


Middle school Typically sixth through eighth grades

THE SITUATION:

Middle schools have begun to prepare students for life beyond high school. Course choices -- such as math or science -- carry huge implications in middle school and can affect a student's success in college. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls the middle grades the "Bermuda Triangle" of K-12 education, because it is too often a period when students "sink or swim."

CAUSE FOR CONCERN:

Students founder in middle school and experts aren't sure why. A large Harvard University study suggests the problem is middle school itself. The study found students who finished elementary school in fifth grade and moved to middle school -- the typical experience -- often had significant declines in math and English that persisted into high school. Students who attended kindergarten through eighth grade -- skipping middle school -- showed smaller declines. Higher absentee and dropout rates were also found among students who attended middle schools. A Johns Hopkins study found that youths most at risk of incarceration were clearly identifiable by middle school.

ACTION PLAN:

The Legislature must closely track middle-school achievement for signs -- known as "early-warning data," -- that are often a more accurate predictor than poverty of whether or not a student is likely to drop out of high school.


High school Grades 9-12

THE SITUATION:

Increased graduation requirements and the push to get more students taking challenging courseloads are intended to ensure students have the basic academic skills needed to succeed in college or the workplace.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN:

Too many students sink, rather than swim. Each year, 4.6 percent of Washington's high-school students drop out. In the 2009-10 academic year, that amounted to 14,770 students. Nationally, 1.2 million students drop out each year, a rate that comes with huge social costs. A study of the Chicago and Illinois school systems suggested that high-school dropouts nationwide will collect an average of $70,850 more in government benefits in their lifetimes than they will pay in taxes.

ACTION PLAN:

Defeat House Bill 2411, shortsighted legislation by Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, to lower highschool graduation requirements to 18 credits, from 20. The current level allows students to get enough core courses for college and career while leaving room to explore electives such as art and music.


Higher education

THE SITUATION:

Washington state ranks 14th in the country in the proportion of the population with a college degree but it ranks extraordinarily low, 46th, in the proportion of state high-school graduates who go to college. Our state's public higher-education system has seen its budget cut in half since the 2007-09 biennium.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN:

Low degree production is just one problem. A tax has been placed on our college students by the state's dramatic disinvestment in higher education. Tuition now pays for about 65 percent of college costs, the exact reverse of the ratio between tuition and state support 15 years ago, according to the Washington State Budget & Policy Center.

ACTION PLAN:

The Legislature must stop the hemorrhaging in higher-education budgets. Lawmakers must give institutions broader flexibility and set performance goals that increase the number of students earning degrees.


Charting the future

BY 2018, two-thirds of Washington jobs will require some postsecondary education -- professional certifications or two-year or four-year college degrees. The Legislature's disinvestment in public education places the state on an economic collision course in which our leading employers, such as Microsoft and Boeing, must continue to hire people from out of state and abroad because our own young people do not have the skills to take those jobs. Without bold leadership to change priorities, Washington state will not be able to compete in a global economy or find its way back to prosperity.


Sources: National Institute for Early Learning Research, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Research & Data Center, The Lumina Foundation, The BERC Group, state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Washington State Office of Financial Management

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