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Friday, August 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Susan Byrnes / Times editorial columnist
Lofty education standards require stable state funding

By Susan Byrnes
Special to The Times

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Back-to-school sales have begun. Get ready for more feisty debate about money and public schools.

Bickering over the adequacy of federal funding for the No Child Left Behind Act is already a national pastime. Conservatives trip over each other to proclaim public education is a black hole. The Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation all point to a doubling of per-pupil funding over the past three decades and the relatively flat student achievement that has accompanied it. Money, they conclude, is essentially irrelevant to student success.

As Washington voters consider whether to fork over a penny on the dollar for a sales-tax increase to boost state education spending, they should dig into the issue a little deeper. The truth about money and public schools is more complicated than a sound bite. It would not make a good bumper sticker.

The truth is, money matters in public education. This is particularly true when it is targeted toward proven programs for the most-disadvantaged students. Research shows low-income students who attended high-quality preschools, for example, do better academically, and have lower rates of crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency than their peers.

It is true education spending has swelled in the past four decades. Yet it is also true that students — and our expectations for them — have changed.

We have more children in poverty and more children who speak English as a second language. We spend more on nutrition programs, special-education programs, full-day kindergarten, after-school programs, English language instruction and transportation than we did four decades ago.

And now, thanks to vigorous education reforms that began even before No Child Left Behind was enacted, we have the noble expectation that every child will succeed to high standards. Of course it was cheaper to educate only a small fraction of students for college-level work and let the others slide by.

Student achievement is not as bleak as some would have us believe. There are some bright spots in the nation's report card — which has measured student achievement since the 1970s — including overall gains in math scores. African-American students made some of the greatest gains.

In Washington, student scores have improved slowly but steadily on the national test as well as on our own state assessments in recent years. Some subgroups have made marked gains. Washington's African-American eighth-graders, for example, made the biggest improvements in math of any of their counterparts in the nation between 1996 and 2003.

In addition, the number of minority students enrolling in higher education has surged in the past two decades. In 1980, 28.4 percent of college-age African-American women were enrolled in higher education; last year, 42 percent were.

Public schools are doing some things right. But the challenges are daunting. There is a wide achievement gap at every grade level. High-school dropout rates are disproportionately high among African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics.

Alone, money will not boost student achievement. Some of the most important ingredients in successful schools cannot be bought: a culture of high expectations, exemplary leaders, devoted, high-quality teachers, and dedicated parents.

But money buys some things that work: preschool for disadvantaged children, full-day kindergarten, teacher training and incentives to attract the best instructors to challenging schools, smaller class sizes and extra help for students who need it most.

Careful targeting of funding and close monitoring of its effectiveness must go hand-in-hand with reforms.

More than a decade into Washington's education-reform movement, we have meaningful standards and a reliable way to measure student progress, but no corresponding fiscal commitment from the state. We are expecting more from less. Assessments have helped us identify struggling students, subgroups and schools. But testing just measures achievement; it does not raise it.

Schools need an adequate, stable source of funding to help students succeed. Instead, state education funding is perennially subject to political and economic winds. In the past decade, there has been a steady erosion of K-12 education's share of the state's general fund, from 47.6 percent to 43.5 percent last year.

Increased funding should come with strings. Schools and districts need more incentives for success and disincentives for failure.

Smart investments in our schools make a difference, not just for children, but for all of us.

Susan Byrnes writes Fridays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at sbyrnes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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