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Race to the top and putting principals in charge can improve schools

Washington State has been handed an opportunity for improving our schools. President Obama is offering $4.35 billion to states in Race to the Top funding to achieve school reform. Washington’s share could be up to $250 million. In order to receive this funding, though, the President is requiring Washington’s legislature to take the following actions: Allow the state to takeover failing schools, legalize charter or innovation schools, allow performance pay for teachers, and commit to core standards and realigned assessments.
Yet it appears that defenders of the status quo in Washington feel that Race to the Top reforms are not necessary. The facts do not support this position. Washington allows none of the key school improvement policies required by Race to the Top, even though they work at improving schools for children.
Public schools in Washington could certainly use some help. A 2008 State Board of Education report classifies Washington’s schools as follows: 13 percent of schools are struggling, or persistently underperforming; 70,500 students are stuck in these schools; only 32 percent of schools are good; only 4 percent of schools are exemplary. Fully 64 percent of Washington’s schools are rated as no better than adequate or struggling.
Unsurprisingly, the current system is failing our students: One-third of our students drop out of high school; only 45 percent of Washington’s 10th graders passed the 2008 math WASL; only 38 percent of Washington’s 10th graders passed the 2008 science WASL.
This affects our colleges. Public schools so poorly prepare students for college that 52 percent of students at community colleges must take remedial courses in reading, math and writing, and half of the students required to take remedial courses eventually drop out of college.
College graduation rates are so low in Washington that we rank 43rd in the nation on this measure.
Lack of money is not the problem. Washington’s taxpayers generously fund our public schools. Schools receive over $10 billion a year, spending $10,274 per pupil in 2008-09. Since 1998, per pupil funding has increased by 63 percent, up sharply from the $6,318 per pupil we spent in 1998-9.
Despite the funding schools receive and the mediocre results they deliver, the public school establishment steadfastly resists needed reforms. Washington’s public schools cling to an antiquated management and governance structure dating from the 1930’s. This centralized, top-down system is extremely inefficient. Consider that: less than 59 cents of every dollar reaches the classroom; less than half of all public school employees are actually elementary or secondary classroom teachers; school principals in Washington control less than 5 percent of their budgets; schools already employ enough teachers to provide class sizes of 18, yet class sizes are larger, because so many teachers are assigned nonteaching jobs; strict union work rules protect weak principals and teachers.
Obama’s Race to the Top program offers Washington education leaders powerful incentives to change. However, these would only be first steps. Real reform would transfer school decision-making from legislatures and school districts to school principals. Putting principals in charge of their budgets and teachers raises student achievement wherever it is tried, across the country and around the world.
Washington should start with Race to the Top reforms, and then give school principals the budget and management tools they need to improve public education for all students.
Reprinted from the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.
Finne is education director at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington State. For more information visit or call 206-937-9691.

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