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Originally published Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 3:16 PM

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School funding should be based on achievement, not staffing formulas

To truly improve K-12 education, Washington state must change from a staff-based to a subjects-based model of school funding, writes Susan Goding, a school board director with the Highline School District.

Special to The Times

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SEATTLE Center is organizing an exhibition of student art to showcase the classroom of the future in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair called The Next Fifty. Economists emphasize that increasing educational attainment of its citizens will improve the economic future of Washington state. Today the most important change Washington can make to improve education for the next 50 years is to fund education, instead of funding a staffing chart. Let me explain.

The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) is the compilation of Washington laws. In the RCW are two visions of Washington state schools. One defines the knowledge and skills of a basic education. The other defines the funding formula for a basic education. These two laws are out of sync.

Funding for education is based on the number of adults per students in a building, right down to providing for 0.017 psychologists per 400 elementary students. The problem with funding schools based on the number of adults, rather than how they teach knowledge and skills, is that the conversation for increased funding will center on wages or hiring instead of increasing student achievement.

The state of Washington needs to fund education in a way that puts education in the center. A better funding formula would fund subjects per students taught, not staff per students taught. Higher education is funded, in part, based on subjects taught per student, so this formula does work.

High-achieving students and struggling students, especially, are getting shortchanged by the current system. Although the No Child Left Behind Act does not dictate a narrow curriculum, many schools subsequently cut back on the number of subjects taught in order to meet national standards.

We know that students need a broad education for the background to be good citizens and to be prepared for college or a career. In the current system of funding, there is no incentive for schools to find ways to teach students differently and more broadly.

Under the new funding formula, however, schools would receive money for the subjects they teach. Schools that cut art, for instance, would be funded less; schools that do teach it, more. This will create an incentive for innovation in instruction that does not happen when schools are funded based on the number of staff in the building.

High-achieving students and students with wide-ranging interests also will benefit from school-issued "badges." Badges are a new concept in education. Badges would not be a reward for homework. Badges would acknowledge artistic, academic and physical skills mastered beyond regular school work.

Paying schools per subject per student would encourage schools to extend their school day; and, paying schools partial funding for badges would encourage schools to develop partnerships and opportunities for students to extend their learning day outside of school.

Students could fill their off time with educational activities and get recognized for doing so. The funding would pay the administrative cost for evaluating the activity. Awarding badges on their transcripts would motivate students to do more and learn more. Physical fitness, especially, could be a badge any student could earn.

The goal of our education system should be to educate and motivate students to become lifelong learners, not to staff buildings. The Washington state education funding formula should create incentives for education to be available 24/7, 365 days a year. Our economy depends more and more on having an educated citizenry.

The Basic Education Act, matched with a changed education-centric model of funding, would better reflect the possibilities of our techno-centric society. Subjects taught per student, not adults per student, should be central to the funding formula.

These changes will create incentives for a better, more efficient, broad liberal arts education for students and result in a more dynamic economy for Washington in the next 50 years.

Susan Goding is a school board director with the Highline School District.

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