by Goldy, 11/27/2006, 10:57 AM

Yesterday I criticized the critics of Seattle Public Schools for comparing the district to “the failing school systems of blighted East Coast cities,” a critique I find irksome both for its intentionally hyperbolic portrayal of the district’s woes, and the narrow-minded provincialism in which it off-handedly disparages historic cities that long ago achieved the kind of economic and cultural greatness Seattle’s civic boosters have aspired towards since the city was first christened Alki New York: “New York, by-and-by.” (We’re still waiting.)

The post generated quite a vigorous debate, some of which was openly hostile and personally dismissive, with many commentators choosing to take offense at words I never wrote. Apparently, I’m a selfish elitist because I choose to send my daughter to an underfunded and ethnically diverse South End school. Go figure. I’m also, apparently, an unashamed apologist for the district establishment. (Um… did any of you actually read my running commentary on the school closure process?)

What all this tells me is that an awful lot of people seem emotionally or ideologically invested in portraying Seattle Public Schools as a district in extreme crisis on the edge of an abyss… if not already irreversibly plummeting towards the bottom. And at risk of resorting to the same sort of broad-brush-stroke methodology adopted by my detractors, I’d wager that many of those advocating drastic measures such as a city or state takeover of the district, don’t actually have children in the Seattle Public Schools. How much of this is cognitive dissonance (Seattle residents who opted for private schools, now seeking to justify their decision,) or political convenience (non-Seattlites looking to block spending more state money on city students) I don’t know. But I do know that the rest of the state uses this popular portrayal of the district as a bloated piggybank for corrupt, incompetent officials as their primary justification for refusing to throw good money after bad. And as long as civic leaders prop up this simple-minded analysis we will never restore state education spending to adequate levels.

Fortunately, we still have two newspapers in this town, and this morning the Seattle P-I warned the crisis-mongers to “back off“:

Yes, the board has handled school closures badly, essentially leading to the resignation of Superintendent Raj Manhas. But is the school system in “crisis”?

The district has turned a multimillion-dollar deficit into a multimillion-dollar surplus. Academic performance is on the rise and the district retains its “market share” with private schools.

Again, let me repeat for the umpteenth time that I’m no fan of the current school board and district administration, and I’m sick and tired of uninspiring bean counters and educational amateurs guiding the district on their own. But as the P-I rightly points out, “poverty, not governance, is Seattle education’s greatest challenge,” and all this talk comparing Seattle schools to those in Boston or New York or Philadelphia or any number of other “blighted East Coast cities” is not only misleading but counterproductive.

Yes, there are governance problems, and I’m not opposed to considering reforms that include appointing some (but not all) school board members. And while I’m not convinced, I’m intrigued by the possibility of a Superintendent Norm Rice who can wield his political skills and connections on behalf of the district.

But the district is not anywhere near a crisis that warrants a takeover, nor does it appear to be heading in that direction, and any debate over such a move would only distract us from the more important debate over prioritizing real educational reforms, and coming to consensus on how to pay for them.

28 Responses to “Seattle Schools debate needs a reality check”

1. Dean spews:


2. Investigative_Reporter spews:

First a disclaimer – I live on the eastside. But, since some of the money going to Seattle schools comes out of taxes I pay (even when I die if I am lucky :)), I’ll enter the fray anyway. And I’ll state up front my bias, having also been a resident of the east coast in a big city – adding tons more money to a school system is no magic bullet. As has been pointed out again and again, many east coast city school systems spend more per student than, say, Seattle Prep does here. They still fail. It isn’t all about money.

That said, though, there is just no excuse for kids in Seattle schools (or anywhere else in WA for that matter) to go to school in run down buildings using old or non-existent text books and having no school supplies for even simple things like chalkboards. Say what you will about raising salaries not necessarily doing anything but providing lousy teachers with more money, but there is no denying money can solve the infrastructure problems, and indeed it is the ONLY way to solve those. More parental involvement won’t. Busting the union won’t. Having Norm Rice as super won’t.

The kids in Seattle deserve to go to school in working buildings with usuable text books and other materials. They even should have usuable technology. Let’s fund that sort of stuff now while we argue over teachers’ pay.

3. Roger Rabbit spews:

Great damage has been done to our society by rightwing ideologues who peddled outright lies; public education (along with social security and living wages) is among their primary targets, and we must be prepared for a vicious propaganda assault against our schools.

4. skagit spews:

Maybe you should lose the defensiveness and attitude, go back and reread the comments and you might find some interesting suggestions and debate there. Also, you absolutely did emphasize funding as a main problem whether you wish to acknowledge the fact or not.

5. School parent spews:

I totally agree with your comments that there is no crisis. I am appalled that Norm Rice wants to reopen the closure issue. Have any of these people who oppose closures looked at the schools in questions? Has anyone given thought to the fact that students with more resources might get a better education? Small schools can’t afford full time librarians, counselors, reading specialists that help students. It is time to help the board get a new superintendent and then vote for new members in November if you choose. The first thing is to vote for the levy measures on Feb. 6, 2007 That must be a given. While I think this school board is terrible, it is the board that needs to be replaced, not the supertindent for a short time.

6. Non parent spews:

A few thoughts here…

First off, I am pleased to see that with the excpetion of RR’s normal lunacy, this has been an incredibly thought provoking, positive discussion.

Goldy, is this a first on your blog? It might be an idea to use this discussion as a barometer on establishing to protocols.

At any rate, back on topic…

School Parent, I really don’t think that throwing money at a problem is the complete solution. How about mandating parent involvement with their kids school as well? Getting the parents directly involved in all forms of programs, be that volunteering to just be involved in the PTA, helping in raising cash, being a lunch room monitor, etc…. is going to establish a deeper sense of community, solve discipline problems as well as create a relationship with the administrators, teachers and students.

Seems to me your going to have much higher impact on so many different levels.

Addressing the Issue of text books (previous discussion): Having been involved in text book publishing, I’d like to point that the publishers are responding to the needs of the states and the districts…. Since approximately 1992 the major publishing house and the majority of the minor ones as well, all have custom publishing divisions that are geared with catering books to the specific needs of buyers (school districts). Regettably, if there are complaints about the books being manufactured, the problem falls on the shoulders of the educators, school boards and their buyers

7. eponymous coward spews:

I’d rather gnaw my arm off than hand Mayor Nickels authority over the school system. Seattle’s a bit crazy about consensus, but I don’t trust his decision-making (Sound Transit, the Viaduct, Lake Union streetcars, and so on), so I’m not interested in letting him expand his empire (which, based on how he’s treated the City Council, seems to be a lot of what he’s about- using excuses and grandiose to expand his reach and power).

8. georgetown stew spews:

Maybe the US congress can “partially appoint” the state legislators everything there is a governance problem. That is the logical conclusion of an appointed school board in any form. Democracy is messy, but…

9. rhp6033 spews:

My caveat: I live in Everett, and my kids are in college now, so my direct interest in the subject is limited to the fact that each child graduating from the Seattle School System has a vote which is of the same value as mine. That means they can cancel out my vote, or multiply it, depending upon which way the vote. Therefore my self-interest is that they are knowledgeable and bright as possible. Also, my mother was a public-school teacher.

I do think there is a vested interest among quite a few people, often who are outside the district, in seeing the Seattle School District “fail”. Since Seattle residents vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers, they believe that it justifies their position that Democrats cannot manage a school district, so therefore should not be in charge of any form of government. Accordingly, they have an incentive to argue that it has “failed”, and must be rescued in the form of a city or state takeover. The fact that the city or state would be faced with the same problems and is no better equipped to deal with them than the school board isn’t relevent to them. They just want to see something of the sort happen, so they can use it among their arguments that the “liberal Democrats in Seattle” cannot manage a school system.

Like other parts of government (transportation, etc.), they vigorously attack any attempt to fund the system, and then once it is sufficiently “starved”, complain that it is not working to their satisfaction.

I am very skeptical of comparisons between the Seattle School District and those in suburban areas, such as the Eastside, with the assumption that performance of the students is a reflection on the teachers or the administration of those schools.

Seattle school facilities tend to be much older, on average, than those on the Eastside and require a lot more money for maintenance or remodel. Maintenance deferred over years due to funding constraints only increase the bill to be paid later. Newer Eastside schools don’t have as many problems in this regard. Also, a lot of Eastside schools with wealthier parents are able to assist their schools in ways the Seattle schools cannot. While a South Seattle school might have several bake sales and other fund-raisers to struggle to raise $2500 to buy plaground equipment, an Eastside high school can, in a single auction night, raise tens of thousands of dollars a year to “buy” a full-time football coach for the school, as well as fully fund a music program, etc. Finally, when one parent makes an income in the seven figures (plus stock options), it is much more likely that the other parent will remain at home, being available to volunteer at the school, assist their children with their homework, send their child to Sylvan classes to make up for deficiencies, hire tutors, etc.

I do think that there are definate limits to what increased funding can accomplish. I am often skeptical of the “program of the month” which attempts to help a few children with a specific problem, but which primarily helps the author of the program complete their master’s or doctorate degree and insert an impressive paragraph on their resume. I think instead of closing schools, we need to fund them so we can have increasingly smaller class sizes, which tends to help solve a wide variety of problems.

10. Tree Frog Farmer spews:

LikewiseNamedCoward@7 Hmmm. I agree with your sentiments about the mayor. No expansions allowable there. . .not even the ever expanding beltline. But I must disagree slightly. . .I have little or no use for our City Council as it is currently composed. Essentially I am saying ‘a pox on both their Houses!’.
Norm Rice is no guaranteed solution, even as a gap filler. And no, I do not like the School Board either. . . . .

11. Proud to be an Ass spews:

@6: Mandating “parental involvement”? Disagree vehemently. The problem with public schools is an abysmal level of funding. The problem with public schools is white flight. It is absurd to provide little or no resources, assign a very demanding mission, and then critique the mission’s failure. Such a critique is not just utterly devoid of logic, it is demeaning to those who support and engage in the mission.

I guess it gets down to this. When the brown people have all the money, and tilt the rules their way, perhaps you will understand. But for now, it’s “all about me” and “my hard earned taxes”. Such attitudes distress me greatly.

12. Non parent spews:


Saying that there is one problem with our public schools is laughable. There are many different layers of problems, including our screwed up lottery system, over political correctness, lack of establsihing a simple policy of “cause and effect”, inability to actually teach, etc…..

How is getting people, all people, involved in a community “all about me”?

BTW, This has nothing to do with being white, brown, green or plaid, so stop using that tired old excuse.

The idea behind this is about getting people involved in a community, building relationships and getting everyone together in order to educate and raise their kids.

Lets face it, one of the problems today is that we’ve faded to anonymity and it’s easier to criticize your kids classmates, teachers (as well as parents) as you don’t have a personal relationship with them.

13. Mark The Redneck KENNEDY spews:

Goldy – It is a flat out fucking LIE to say that “poverty, not governance” is the problem.

SSD’s own budget report shows that they spend over ELEVEN THOUSAND DOLLARS per student. That level is well above regional and national averages. So get off the more money thing; nobody is buying it.

Fixing this fucking mess is not just a matter of pouring more money down the same rathole. And there is no “knight in shining armor” that can save it.

The quality level of Seattle schools is exactly what the residents of Seattle want them to be. As I discussed at length on Sunday, the priority and importance that the average Seattle family puts on education is lower than most other communities, and the quality level provided reflects the aggregate level of importance that Seattle residents put on education.

14. Mark The Redneck KENNEDY spews:

Here’s Barelli’s comment from Sunday that puts to rest this idiotic fucking idea that Seattle schools are underfunded. (John, hope you don’t mind my reposting it here.)

John Barelli says:

Let me help with this. From the current Seattle Public Schools budget ( – in current dollars)

SPS 06/07 student population – 43,322

SPS 06/07 budget – 489,993,677

Dollars per student – 11,310.51

11/26/2006 at 3:20 pm

15. rhp6033 spews:

MTR: Have your figures properly allocated for the difference in capital expenditures vs current expenses? I myself have no idea what is, or is not, included in those figures, but I suspect neither do you – you just latched on to them because you believe they support your pre-existing belief (i.e., prejudice).

Capital expenditures (i.e., investments in school buildings) have to be considered carefully. If lack of resources in prior years result in “catch-up” of deferred maintenance, then you are going to have misleading results when you apply the numbers as you do here. Also, capital expenditures may be money spent, but are not necessarily an “expense”, they may instead be a long-term investment.

Generally, public entities should have a seperate “capital” budget apart from current operating expenses, although there will be transfers between the two. But quite a few politicians (or “wannabe” politicians), try to re-combine them for whatever particular axe they want to grind.

The more I look at it, the more I think that school boards really don’t have that much control over their own budgets. The state determines most of their income, except for what can be raised from the PTSA and some local levies. Most of their expenses are related to teacher’s salaries and building repair and maintenance. And a school board has only very limited control of teacher’s salaries (the Marysville School District strike proved that). So

16. Mark The Redneck KENNEDY spews:

rhp – What I’m trying to do is to break through this idiotic notion that there’s some kind of magic wand that can be waved over SSD’s problems. It’s NOT money and it’s NOT a knight in shining armor. As long as we persist in fantasizing about simplistic fixes, we aren’t going to get anywhere.

If you want to analyze capital vs operating expenses, go look at the actual budget document that I posted above.

17. skagit spews:

Mark, you are a one-trick pony. And one-trick ponies aren’t much good at problem solving. Black and white, rich and poor, good and bad. You do nothing to solve problems. You just reiterate the same one-trick mantra over and over and over.

I hope a lot of people go back to read your comments on Sunday because you didn’t have much to offer except the same one-trick over and over and over.

18. Mark The Redneck KENNEDY spews:

One trick pony? What the fuck does that mean? I have an opinion based on my years of experience and vastly superior intellect.

What the fuck do you want? I defined the problem. You and others agreed with my analysis. You asked for a prescription. I gave one. And you and others agreed with it.

So tell us smartfuckingass. What the fuck would you do? Throw money down the same rathole? Keep the same dingbats in charge that we have now? Hope a knight in shining armor shows up?

Tell us smart guy…

19. Mark The Redneck KENNEDY spews:

I heard Rabbi Lapin speak a few years ago where he persuasively made the case that poverty of character causes all other forms of poverty. Poverty of economy. Poverty of morals. Poverty of citizenship. Poverty of intellect. Poverty of politics.

All I’m saying here is that the academic ghetto that exists in seattle is purely and totally a result of the poverty of character that exists there. And until the character problem is fixed, all other problems will remain.

20. Don Joe spews:

“One trick pony? What the fuck does that mean? I have an opinion based on my years of experience and vastly superior intellect.”

It means that the only person who believes you have a “vastly superior intellect” is you.

21. John Barelli spews:

Mark The Redneck KENNEDY says:

Here’s Barelli’s comment from Sunday that puts to rest this idiotic fucking idea that Seattle schools are underfunded. (John, hope you don’t mind my reposting it here.)

No, facts are facts, and before saying Seattle schools have “an abysmal level of funding” we need to look at that level of funding.

It is possible that the current funding is not adequate to the tasks that have been given to Seattle schools, but over $11,000 per student seems like a lot of money, and we need to make sure it’s being well spent before we consider adding to it.

Just so that we are clear on where these numbers are coming from, they are from the 2006/2007 Seattle Public Schools Operating Budget, available at: .

Now I am all in favor of increasing teacher salaries and adding newer textbooks and equipment for the classroom. If funding needs to be increased to do that, then it is money well spent.

But… With an operating budget of over $11,000 per student, it seems that there should be sufficient money to do that. It seems absurd that teachers should have to spend their own money to purchase basic classroom supplies.

I am more than a bit disturbed to notice that “Core Administration” costs seem to be rising far faster than inflation, despite a drop in overall student population.

2005/6 Core Admin – 10.7 Million
2006/7 Core Admin – 14.3 Million
an increase of approximately 33%

There may be new obligations placed on the administration by state or federal authorities that leave no choice but to raise the budget here, but that needs to be spelled out in more detail.

“Teaching Support” is another area where I would like a bit more detail. It is also rising faster than inflation, despite decreasing enrollment.

2005/6 Teaching Support – 55.1 Million
2006/7 Teaching Support – 61.4 Million
an increase of over 11%

There may well be good reasons behind these increases, but when non-teaching expenses are rising faster than teaching expenses, we need some explaination before simply deciding that the problem is a lack of money.

Certainly, there is a lack of money at the classroom level. Teacher salaries are too low, classroom equipment and teaching supplies are inadequate.

Whether that is due to an overall lack of funds for schools is the question that needs to be answered before we simply add more.

22. skagit spews:

Thanks, Barelli, for a more thoughtful analysis. Mr. One-Trick Pony spent a lot of time repeating his mantra that there was enough money and it was all cultural. Perhaps that could be considered two tricks but his overassessment of his contribution to the discussion yesterday reeks of not having read/heard a word that was said.

A problem with people who think they are superior.

A few comments about Seattle: we have quite a few small schools that are not fully enrolled. So closure was on the table.

I was a union rep ten years ago – long time I know – but at that time, Seattle’s school secretaries were the highest paid in the state. Also, I have a friend who is an instructional assistant in Northshore. After ten years of work, her pay was still $18,000 a year. In Seattle, when I started teaching which was 1990 (first full-contracted year), I was paid about $22,000. My instructional assistant (reading and math specialist) was making $26,000 a year. Northshore paid their teachers more; Seattle spreads out the wealth and teachers get less.

I’m not for anybody making poverty wages. But, $18,000 for 9 months of work, no accountability or responsibility (that belongs to the teacher) and short hours (unlike teachers who routinely put in many more hours than are clocked) is not bad. Esp. when you consider they get health care, some vacation/sick leave, and retirement.

In addition, Barelli’s comment on the administrative increase from one budget year to the next says a lot. Any teacher that goes down to the Stanford building sees it. We have too many people including teachers down there who should back in the classroom or gone.

This District is a mess. What I don’t understand about Goldstein’s rant is why his little program couldn’t be replicated in another more efficient buildling. He’s not trying to help at all. He’s just protecting his own. He’s like Mark who is throwing out insults or allegations without any solutions.

And Mark, you didn’t offer one solution. So not only are you the coward I called you, but a liar as well.

23. skagit spews:

Let me change that “reading and math specialist” to reading/math assistance. He was not a specialist or even a teacher.

24. Stephen Schwartz spews:

There is an unusual number of good points in this thread.

I would like to add my 2 cents.

First, I agree with Goldy, the SPS is a lot better than its publicity. Some years a go I did a study comparing socio-economically similar kids at Lakeside vs at Garfield. G womped L! The pint is, the oh so very PC district is obsessed with its minority problem and does not want to celebrate the success of better off kids.

Second, what the District needs most is NOT money. Money helps but hinesty would help more. Someone needs to tell paprents what they can and can nto do and NOT be over-riddden by the school board. Manhas seems like a competent admin but he lacks the gravitas to carry the day on hos own political weight. Norm Rice, assuming he is willing to take the real job and not a temp job, is a great leader who could move the district to do things that need doing.

Third, a lot of what the District needs is moving away from a suburban to a big city model. The references to failed East Coast cities are interesting. Boston and New York for all their faults are the homes of Boston Latin and Bronx Science. Seattle could create a great central high school campus, maybe using the Seattle Center as a backdrop, taking advantage of much that is here including the fact that .. relative to the East Coast cities, our $$ divide is relatively modest.

Fourth, the SPS should seek a stronger relationship with the UW. There are obvious opportunities for synergism.

25. skagit spews:

David Wright: Each school is independent.

This is privatization of education. This eliminates public education. The only thing you’ve left out is how the money moves from government to school site – vouchers I’m guessing.

Money follows students.

Ditto the first response! If schools don’t get enough vouchers, they are history! (LOL!)

Special needs students are a separate problem.

I believe you’d have quite a few disability laws to contend with before you just tell special needs kids that they have to go elsewhere. Who determines “minor” cases from “severe”cases? Your labeling of schools as “normal” will increase litigation considerably. And litigation is already one of the major items that eats away at school budgets.

A regular enforcer accountability and transparency.

Who hires the regulator? Is this a government agency? I have the least problem with this because it might be possible, esp. if its job was to simply determine whether or not achievement goals were met. But a standard assessment used universally would be necessary.

Parents always have the choice to use or ignore published results. Nothing new about that.

You say your program avoids the voucher proposal but I don’t see how that could happen. You’d be extending vouchers but just calling them by another name. And if the schools have that much independence, why couldn’t they include religious teaching? You haven’t precluded that at all.

What you call “devolving decision making without “officially” breaking up the district confuses me. You have, indeed, broken up the district. For why would you need a district at all.

Your point about wealthier families having better programs is correct, of course. I haven’t seen and am not aware of “massive flight to the suburbs and private schools” yet. In fact, I have quite a few parents who have returned to city schools because it wasn’t any better in the burbs.

Not a criticism here but I think some of your proposals might actually be against some of our Federal civil rights laws – the notion of “separate but equal” regarding race, the disabled, etc. Did you notice all the acronyms cited by Escaped yesterday? Still it may be that schools would be “strongly economically(sic) incentivized to a better job.” Just don’t know.

26. skagit spews:

Mark: I heard Rabbi Lapin speak a few years ago where he persuasively made the case that poverty of character causes all other forms of poverty. Poverty of economy. Poverty of morals. Poverty of citizenship. Poverty of intellect. Poverty of politics.

We’re quoting Lapin as our character witness now? If that doesn’t reveal your lack of intelligence and ethics, I don’t know what will. (LOL) You’ve finally gone over the top, Mark.

27. Stephen Schwartz spews:


Your argument against charter schools is the common one and makes some sense. Obviously there can not be an infinite variety of schools.

OTOH, there is nothing magical about the size of a school district. “Seattle” is not legally coterminous with the “Seattle District.”

I suspect legally a school district must be defined geographically, though I wonder why that needs to be true.

On the other hand, a District built around free choices for students (parents) might very well work better than what we have now. In Seattle, rightly or wrongly, the District is obsessed with the race issue. Even though AA are small minority in the city (where the tax base is), their children are over-represented and get a h8uge part of the attention of the Board. As a result a parent whose child, regardless of race, has other issues, rightly may feel the District is not serving her child’s interests.

In my opinion the answer, whether you it charter school or free choice, is to encourage diversity in the system. At the High School level this is easy. If Seattle were to centralize its high schools, the result would be a set of choices … an academic school, a trade school, a spanish school, etc. This would allow the Board to focus on making each school deliver the best it could and leave it to the parents to decide the sort of school they wanted Kevin or Barak to attend.

Elementary schools are a much more difficult issue. We need to decide whether we have now officially abandoned the goal of city wide integration. If so, then this will change many things, including where parents choose to live. The advantage again would be the ability to focus resources … neighborhoods (as opposed to schools) needing improved education could then get resources.

The price would NOT be segregation as in the past for two reasons:

1. we have learned that the price of city wide geographic integration is white flight. Put simply, geographic integration does not work.

2. On a voluntary basis we could still offer children the possibility of being transported to other geographic areas for the benefit of a particular community (again as opposed to just school). I suspect the demand for such transportation would be relatively small, in part because of the change in the last two generations of ethnic pride. In addition, the desire to save transportation costs would be an incentive to to the District to make local schools more attractive.

Finally, because the student density is highest in minority areas, so too would the opportunity for innovation and choice be highest in those areas. Specialized charter schools might well CHOOSE to be in such areas because it would be easier to enroll the critical mass of students required.

28. Mel Westbrook spews:

FYI: it is simplistic to take the district’s budget and divide it by the number of students. The district uses a weighted student formula where money follows the student’s need to whatever school he/she attends. Also, there are some schools have additional funding that would not show up in the budget. The average is much lower than $11,000, more like $9,000.