Outgoing superintendent Raj Manhas, of whom I have been rather critical, has a guest column in the Seattle Times today defending Seattle Public Schools.
According to Manhas, scores have improved for seven straight years, and the district now outperforms the state average on standardized tests, matching or exceeding many of our neighboring districts. Over the past few years the district has also managed to turn a $34 million shortfall into a $20 million reserve. Hardly an argument for a state or city takeover.
Given all the talk about a district in crisis, I think many people would be surprised by the reality. Take a tour of the city’s elementary schools and you’ll mostly find well maintained, recently constructed or renovated buildings with orderly, well behaved classrooms and a dedicated teaching staff. These are not the inner city schools of Detroit or Philadelphia — many would be virtually indistinguishable from their nearby suburban counterparts. There’s a reason why communities fought so hard to save our local schools from closure… we love them.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Seattle is an urban district with all that entails, but the image propagated through hyperbolic editorials only makes matters worse. At least at the elementary school level I believe it is often a complete waste of money in Seattle to send your child to private schools, but way too many families now do exactly that. This removes from the district the children of many of our most affluent and best educated parents — the children who are typically the easiest and least expensive to teach — leaving behind a disproportionate number of students who face additional educational and life challenges.
As Manhas points out, our schools have these children for only six hours a day, nine months a year:
For us to make true strides in academic achievement, we need to pay much more attention to basic quality-of-life issues for our children. Research confirms what test scores also reveal: Childhood poverty and racism are the biggest factors keeping our kids down.
Yes, hands-on parental involvement is perhaps the most accurate indicator of academic success, but some of our parents are simply unwilling or unable to participate in their children’s education. You cannot blame an immigrant parent who works ten hours a day and who has no formal education nor competency with the English language, for not helping his children with their homework. And you cannot blame a child growing up in an unstable household for being unprepared to learn. What you can do is attempt to intervene as early as possible. Headstart, pre-school, and full day kindergarten are all solutions that are proven to work, and the only thing preventing us from implementing these programs for all our needy children is the political will.
It is critical to recognize that all that has occurred in Seattle Public Schools over the past decade — both the successes and the failures — has occurred in the context of systemic underfunding. Washington state’s public education funding now ranks in the bottom ten nationwide, and Seattle’s teachers are amongst the lowest paid of any major city when adjusted for local cost of living. To hear many of the district’s right-wing critics tell it, our schools already waste the resources they have, so any increase in spending would only be throwing good money after bad. But as Manhas poignantly asks, “How can we demand that our children reach for the stars when the grownups have them in the nation’s basement in terms of education funding?”
Of course money is not the only answer, but not a single educational reform being touted from the right or the left or anywhere in between can possibly have a hope of succeeding unless we adequately fund it. Our educators, editorialists, elected officials and yes, even us citizens have given way too much lip service to the ideal of educating all our children. Now it is time for us to put our money where our mouth is.