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Originally published Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Legislature should focus first on fixing public education, then asking taxpayers for funding

While it is clear state lawmakers need to invest more in public education, their first task is to make the system efficient and effective.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE 2013 Legislature, under a judicial order to improve the state’s education system, should focus first on improving how public education works and find ways to hold the system accountable.

The state Supreme Court’s McCleary v. State of Washington mandate to put more money into the public schools cannot be divorced from how the money is spent. Pouring more money into the old system will not produce new, improved results.

Both reforms and investment are critical if the state is to provide a world-class education — from preschool to college and career training.

Keep in mind: The state’s highest court does not control state spending; its ruling last January wisely refrained from telling lawmakers how much to spend or where to spend it.

Lawmakers must make progress on education reforms even as they face another budget deficit. Biennial state spending on early learning and K-12 is currently $13.6 billion, or 44 percent of the state’s general fund. Higher education spending is about $2.6 billion, or 8.3 percent.

Those levels mark the starting point. More money, as it is found through reforms, resetting priorities or economic growth, should be added as possible.

A key goal should be increasing the level of support for the state’s universities and community colleges, which will help hold the line on tuition.

Beyond money, critical changes are needed in how public schools operate and in their accountability.

The educational opportunity gap is widening in Washington, mostly along racial and socioeconomic lines. Most other states are narrowing the achievement gap. Disparities in grades, standardized-test scores, dropout rates, and which students attend and complete college pose an urgent challenge to lawmakers.

Indeed, if the Legislature is to pay for educating our youngest residents from ages 3 to 23 — and that is how the Legislature should approach the system — it must have more control over how the money is spent and concentrate more on improving outcomes.

Education will not be fully funded by the court’s 2018 goal without new revenue. But legislators must proceed in the short term under the political reality that new taxes are not an option yet.

Lawmakers’ route to a successful ballot request for more education investment begins now by building credibility. Provide transparency and an exact accounting of the billions currently spent on education. Prove its efficacy.

Taxpayers will need to see a significant level of control and accountability first.

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