Northwest NEWS

December 2, 2002


Legislature must keep commitment to public schools

By Charles Hasse
   Washington Education Association president
   The elections are over, and Washington has chosen its 58th Legislature, a body that will make critical decisions affecting public education in our state for decades to come.
   Virtually all of the candidates ran on platforms stressing their commitment to public schools. And without exception, all 122 of those elected will swear an oath to uphold the Washington Constitution, a document that establishes public education as the state's paramount duty.
   Now it's time for our legislators to keep their commitment to public education.
   As has happened often in the past, though economic times will make it difficult for lawmakers to fulfill their duty to students and schools. A host of circumstances confound them further. Bitter partisan and geographic divisions have created a culture of conflict, and public distrust of government has nearly paralyzed the political process.
   Given the projected state budget shortfall of more than $2 billion, given the political climate and given the equivocation of legislative leaders in both parties, it is all but certain that there will be attempts to eliminate two important education initiatives approved by voters in 2000. Initiative 732 provides cost-of-living salary adjustments for public school employees, and Initiative 728 reduces class sizes. It is also safe to predict that there will be attempts to cut or eliminate funding for the few remaining school programs outside of the archaic, legally protected category of Basic Education.
   While providing for public education in the upcoming session will be difficult, and while some legislative leaders may argue it is impossible, it is not optional. If the state's founding document means anything, it means that a reasonable level of support for schools must be automatic. And in 2003, that level must be far in excess of the Legislature's quarter-century-old definition of Basic Education, a definition that was written prior to the adoption of internationally competitive standards for students, a definition that was written before the advent of the personal computer.
   Washington citizens may be divided over many issues, and they may lack confidence in governmental institutions, but recent statewide polling indicates that they have reached an important consensus regarding school performance and the need for continued investment. Voters understand the need for competitive pay and benefits to attract and keep quality teachers and other school employees. They know there is a link between compensation and school quality. They key survey findings include:
Washington voters give record-high marks to the state's public schools and school employees, with 80 percent rating teacher performance as "good" or "excellent."

In short, the public understands that school funding is not discretionary. They recognize the progress we have made in out state, and the need to keep moving forward. They know that performance expectations for schools and academic achievement standards for students do not rise and fall with economic indicators and, therefore, neither should the funding that supports them.
   Washington needs a long-term plan to provide stable and adequate school funding through good times and bad. Cutting school funding is unacceptable; it is a shortsighted, superficial stopgap.
   Teachers and support professionals stand ready to work with the new Legislature to find solutions and ensure that all students have the best opportunity our state can provide for a quality public education.
   Despite current adversity, this Legislature must find the courage and vision to sustain improvements and invest in the future. Voters expect it, students deserve it, and the Constitution requires it.