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Monday, June 12, 2006 - Page updated at 05:43 PM

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WASL question: Is the state shortchanging our kids?

Seattle Times staff reporter

CLALLAM BAY, Clallam County — It's a small school, in a remote area of the North Olympic Peninsula with a depressed economy. But in the state's vision for education, pronounced by a governor's council with much fanfare in 1992, that's not supposed to matter.

The council envisioned all kinds of help for a school like this, where too many kids are so overwhelmed by family problems that school is an afterthought. Or they don't see the relevancy of a diploma: Graduation for some kids takes them no further than unemployment and a basketball hoop across Highway 112.

But the council singled out Clallam Bay High and Elementary in a closing statement in its report, inviting readers to imagine what school could be like. Even here.

The governor's council envisioned every student, everywhere, learning to new state standards and passing a new state test to prove it. And it called for spending more than $1 billion in new money in the first six years of a K-12 overhaul, to make sure every kid succeeded.

Even in Clallam Bay, where a handful of teachers must teach everything from spelling to P.E., educators would be able to spend 10 days in the summer to redesign their lesson plans. They would enjoy flexible schedules, time to plan each day or meet with parents. Troubled families would be surrounded by social-service supports. Every child would arrive at school ready to learn — and go on to college, or good jobs.

Fourteen years later, Washington has the statewide learning standards the council endorsed, and the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL).

But in the first six years, the state spent about $250 million on education reform — a long way from the more than $1 billion the council recommended.

The Governor's Council on Education Reform and Funding was no backbencher panel: Top CEOs from around the state, community and legislative leaders and education experts, led by then-Gov. Booth Gardner, met for more than a year to design a new beginning for Washington schools, in response to a statewide teacher strike.

The council set very specific goals for education improvements, and a budget to meet them.

Educators would have up to 10 planning days a year, paid for with $108 million annually. Instead, the state has spent $514 million in 12 years on professional development. Statewide, teachers were funded for four days of planning, then three, then two.

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The council envisioned escalating grants every year for readiness-to-learn programs, totaling more than $265 million in the first six years. Instead the state has spent about $3.6 million per year since 1994 for a small number of schools.

The council wanted mentoring for every new teacher and two-year scholarships at any public college or university in the state for deserving high-school graduates — dreams the state is still struggling to fulfill.

Practice WASL tests since 1997 showed tens of thousands of kids across the state were not meeting the learning standards. Yet it wasn't until 2001 that serious new money for schools started rolling in by voter initiative, and not until this past legislative session that lawmakers put their first big new money — $28.5 million — into a statewide crash-remediation program for 10th-graders who didn't pass the WASL this spring.

The Learning Assistance Program is the state's foundational remediation program, around long before the council report. Lawmakers recently targeted the program to schools with large numbers of students in poverty and raised spending for the program to $79 million in 2005. But today the state is still spending less than in 1998-99: $187 per funded student, about a dollar per school day.

Rhetoric meets reality

Clallam Bay Principal Kandy Ritter hears the council's vision of what her school could be like by now. "Somebody's dreaming," she said.

Ten days to plan? Flexible hours, time to meet with parents? Teachers at Clallam Bay say they take their kids' schoolwork home at night and meet with parents on their own time. The third-grade teacher has a new math curriculum but no time to learn how to use it. She's planning to go to the library this summer to learn better ways to teach science.

As for social-service supports, Superintendent Gene Laes of the Cape Flattery School District, which includes Clallam Bay, has to suppress a laugh: "Out here, I am lucky if I call 911, they come the next day."

The nearest social services — counselors, dependency treatment, mental-health screening — are nearly an hour away. Educators here miss the help Head Start used to provide. The program was discontinued at the school because so many families had moved away, seeking work.

About 66 percent of the children in the school are white, and 34 percent are minorities, mostly Indian. Nearly 55 percent of the children are too poor to buy lunch.

Passing the WASL? Ritter knows for too many kids on too many days, school is about something else altogether. "It's the only warm, safe place they know where they can get a hot meal and be with people who care about them. They are in survival mode."

And what about kids who want to learn automotive repair or construction because they need to make money for their family? How is school going to help them, when they have to prepare for the WASL?

"We need to build a learning community that's real, and quit faking it that everyone's going to go to the University of Washington," Ritter said. "What we are trying to do doesn't make any sense. We have to meet these state standards, but maybe we can do it in a more creative way."

The superintendent just got back from a trip to Alaska, where he pondered the possibility of tying the state learning standards to commercial fishing. Anything to connect with these kids.

Ritter is encouraged by preliminary WASL scores this year: 79 percent of the sophomores passed three segments of the WASL, up from 21 percent last year. There are 14 students in this year's 10th-grade class.

"In a school our size, one or two kids statistically can make a big difference," Ritter said. "But we are very proud at how hard the staff worked, and so did the kids."

In such a small school, with just 184 kids in K-12, students can also benefit from individual attention and creative approaches to teaching and learning.

The science and applied-math teachers are spending their weekends building a trail in the woods to give the kids an outdoor classroom. In independent-living class, senior Wendy Fletcher passes plates of pot roast she and her classmates have just pulled from the oven. She'll graduate this year and is full of plans for a culinary-arts class at community college and a career as a chef.

Each student in the class has been taught how to properly hold utensils, and it's "please" and "thank you" as the roast circles the tablecloth. The home-economics teacher brought in her bone china so these kids from timber and fishing country could put on a high tea. She wants her students to be comfortable in any social setting.

The school also gets extra help to assist struggling students. The state pays for an intervention program that pulls kids out of class for additional help with their schoolwork.

The Cape Flattery School District sends educators to training conferences offered by the state in the summer. And teachers are grateful for initiative funds that enabled them to create a preschool for any family that wants it, and a before-school program.

But the preschool and before-school programs are only two days a week. Some 20 children from kindergarten through fifth grade in the before-school program share the same instructional materials — and furniture. Many haven't had breakfast and have been on a bus for 45 minutes when they arrive.

"Sometimes," says instructor Eddie Bowlby, "a number of kids just want to crawl in the corner and sleep, and I let them." Some of her students arrive at preschool speaking in one-word sentences, or just pointing. They continue to lag so far behind, it scares her.

Paying for the basics

Sophomores around the state are starting to find out how they did on the WASL this spring. So far results show big improvements in reading and writing, with math still a challenge. It's the first year it counts: Beginning with the class of 2008, students must pass three segments of the WASL, or an equivalent, to graduate. For many, the news won't be good.

Statewide, a growing number of students are passing the test, but there's still a long way to go. Only 42 percent of the state's sophomores passed three segments of the WASL in 2005. A final figure for 2006 is not available yet.

Washington makes ever-larger appropriations to schools each year, as more students show up at the door. That basic-education spending includes money for everything from running the school buses to hiring teachers.

But other states spend more on their schools. Washington ranks 35th in the country and well below the national average in total K-12 spending per pupil, according to a Census Bureau report released last March.

Just how much money schools need is a continuing debate.

"It isn't about money," said Washington legislator Gigi Talcott, a Republican and ranking minority member of the House Education Committee. "It's about expectations. We have schools across this state that have taken the same resources and done fabulous things."

But many superintendents say the state shortchanges districts for even the basics. In Spokane, the school district is spending $2 million in local funds on student transportation; $5.9 million on special education, and $1.4 million on programs for students whose first language is not English, because the state's basic-education budget falls short.

In Kennewick, the district is using grant money for math-teacher training — until the grant runs out. The district's remedial math and reading program is reaching only about 60 percent of the students who need it. The district is paying for music teachers, counselors, librarians, reading instructors and some of the school's special-education programs with levy money or initiative funds.

$6.7 billion short

Gary Locke was governor during many of the years the council's recommendations were to be implemented. He readily admits that money matters in public education and that neither he nor the Legislature came up with what was needed.

"One thing we never really did implement, and the report never really addressed, was the issue of funding. So Olympia never took it up, either," said Locke, now a partner in a major Seattle law firm. "Clearly there has to be additional funding to help students come up to the standards."

Former legislator Kim Peery, who became Democratic House majority leader just after the council's report came out, remembers, "The money was there, but the political climate was kind of, you dare not go there. ... We had initiatives putting on spending limits, rolling back transportation taxes, rolling back property taxes."

Initiative 601, passed by voters in 1993, limited how much lawmakers could spend no matter how much revenue was rolling in. So when times were good during the 1990s, lawmakers cut taxes.

The net result in legislative and voter-approved measures adopted since 1993 was about $1.3 billion less in general-fund revenue in fiscal year 2006 and about $6.7 billion less revenue, cumulatively, since 1993, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

And voters sent mixed messages, passing initiatives to increase teacher pay and reduce class size but defeating a tax increase to pay for school improvements.

The governor's council asked the Legislature to design a new funding system for schools to reflect the new vision for student performance. A second group — Washington Learns — is only now taking a comprehensive look at education funding.

Consultants, scheduled to issue their report to the governor and Legislature this fall, have already called in a draft report for some of the same things the council singled out as priorities in 1992.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Laes says preliminary results show 50 percent of the sophomores in the Cape Flattery district passed three subjects of the WASL this year — way up from 12 percent in 2005, but with a lot more work still to be done.

"These kids are as smart as kids anywhere," Laes said. "You have to have the expectations. And the resources."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Alan Berner: 206-464-8113 or aberner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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