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Originally published Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 3:44 PM

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Guest columnist

Education reform must begin with adequate state funding

The cost of educating Washington students far exceeds state and federal funding, writes Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association. Before the state considers moving to a merit-pay system or other measures, the Legislature should amply fund education.

Special to The Times

EDUCATORS in Washington couldn't agree more with The Seattle Times on one major issue raised in a Dec. 30 editorial, "Education: Looking backward, moving forward" — the cost of educating Washington students has far outpaced state and federal funding. We also believe that education reform must continue to move forward, in bad economic times as well as good.

That's why the Washington Education Association has spent the past several months working with Gov. Chris Gregoire on creative and collaborative, but realistic, ways to enhance our education system, including promoting innovation and an effective evaluation system.

While The Times editorial singles out merit pay and charter schools as the yellow brick road to reform, we have a more basic solution: Fix state funding inequities first and only then explore other options to make an adequately funded system even better.

In Washington today, despite a clear constitutional mandate to "amply fund basic education for all students," the state is failing miserably in that duty. Discounting undependable and fluctuating federal funds, state funding barely even covers the costs of classroom teaching on average statewide. That forces local districts to rely on levies to pay for textbooks, utilities, technology, school lunches and more — all pretty "basic" elements of a 21st-century education.

As this chronic underfunding worsens year by year, and decade by decade, children get further behind as they sit in overcrowded classrooms, read from aging textbooks, and work on scarce or outdated computers. And each day, the gap gets wider between what it really costs to educate children and what the state chooses to pay.

Legislators should not be allowed to drag their feet in hopes the problem will be solved by HB 2261, the education-reform bill passed in 2009 with no funding mechanism and a timeline stretching to 2018. Washington's education-funding inequities demand action now.

Educators promise to do our part, too. We do not intransigently oppose any reforms that are aimed in good faith at improving student learning. Do merit pay and charter schools do that? We remain unconvinced, but open to dialogue. Paying teachers for higher student test scores ignores the wide variance in levels of parent involvement, school resources and other types of student support.

Charter schools may have the potential to provoke experimentation, but many of our students already attend creative and innovative public schools. However, improving our schools across the board depends upon myriad factors, most important funding.

Until public schools are adequately funded, these ideas should be shelved.

We applaud The Times for opposing efforts to decrease critical levy-equalization funding for property-poor school districts. But we look to our state's largest daily newspaper for leadership in advocating for education funding that at least adequately, if not amply, provides all our children with the education they need to live, work and succeed in today's world.

On behalf of educators, parents and students across Washington, we ask The Times and its readers to join us in advocating for a new and stable source of revenue to fund our public schools. Now is not the time to cut still more from state education funding. Our children — and the future economic vitality of our state — are depending on us.

Mary Lindquist, a high-school social studies teacher, currently serves as president of the Washington Education Association, which represents 82,000 educators across the state.

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