The teachers at Cathcart Elementary School asked parents to buy new globes and maps for their classrooms because the old ones still showed the U.S.S.R. They also requested reading books and math manipulatives – cubes, puzzles and other tools for teaching math. When janitorial service was reduced for cost reasons, the educators even asked for vacuum cleaners to tidy their classrooms themselves.
Snohomish resident Patty Venema, one of two moms who are lead plaintiffs in the trial over education funding in Washington, testified Wednesday that private fundraising at her children’s school was necessary and nonstop because of inadequate State funding. “Gift wrap, candy, knickknacks, cookies, (flower) bulbs, movie nights, silent auctions,” she said, rattling off the items sold or events held.
Venema, who had served as president and vice president of the Cathcart Parent Organization, told of one big fundraising year when parents helped buy computers. By the end of the fund drive, “$68,000 had crossed my kitchen table,” she said. “The school didn’t have the money to buy computers.”
On Day 10 of the trial, Venema provided on-the-ground testimony of conditions in the Snohomish School District, where she has served on numerous committees, including one that examines district facilities. She found school buildings to be “dilapidated, overcrowded and, in some cases, should have been condemned.” Valley View Middle School, for instance, has only one five-stall bathroom for girls in a school with more than 700 students, she said.
The district experiences difficulties in passing school measures, Venema said, with a double-levy failure in the mid-1990s, rejection of the first try for a levy in 2006 and a failed bond in 2008. At her son Robbie’s middle school, 800 students squeeze in a building meant for 600 students. To accommodate students in the cafeteria, Robbie’s lunch period starts at 10:15 a.m. Hallways are so crowded, Robbie lugs a 25-pound backpack – one-quarter of his body weight – because he doesn’t always have time to get to his locker between classes.
Venema was a student at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland in 1978 when the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the State had failed its constitutional duty to amply provide for the education of all children in Washington. Her daughter, Halie, was a high school freshman when the families of Venema and Stephanie McCleary of Chimacum, along with the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, filed a similar suit in 2007. “A whole generation has passed and we haven’t done a thing about (amply funding) basic education,” Venema said when NEWS attorney Chris Emch asked how she felt about the funding situation. “I’m angry… Every child in the state deserves a basic education.”
During her cross-examination of Venema, Senior Assistant Attorney General Carrie Bashaw referred to a chart showing that 40 percent of the State’s operating budget for 2007-09 goes toward K-12 education, with another 11 percent for higher education. Bashaw asked Venema how much more money is needed for the level of services she wants. Venema said she doesn’t know the figure and neither does the State. What she knows, she said, is that the State is constitutionally mandated to make education “paramount – t hat means first. They should fully fund that piece.”
When Emch later asked Venema if Robbie’s grades reflect the quality of his schooling, she replied that her son “does well despite his education, not because of it.” Asked if she was an involved parent, she tearfully said, “I wouldn’t be sitting here if I wasn’t involved as a parent,” adding that she was fighting for “all the kids in the state.”
Prior to Venema’s testimony, Roger Soder, research professor emeritus of education at the University of Washington, completed his testimony as an expert witness on the subject of democracy, education and the schools. Soder said 12 equally important conditions exist for democracy in general: trust; exchange; social capital; respect for equal justice under law; respect for civil discourse; recognition of the necessity of E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”); free and open inquiry; knowledge of your rights; freedom; an understanding of the necessary tension between freedom and order; understanding of distinctions between a persuaded audience and a more thoughtful public; and ecological understanding.
Quoting Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Cicero, Alexis de Tocqueville and other historians and philosophers, Soder said that authentic democracy required not only learning facts, but forming beliefs and defending them. He quoted George Washington – “The people must know their rights and must value them” – and said neither emphasis is clearly evident today.
“All students are not receiving the kind of education they need to have (to learn the 12 conditions of democracy and) actively participate in democracy,” Soder said, basing his opinion on the students he taught at the UW who had attended public schools in Washington, including those who graduated from high school with honors. “Many of these students have no real serious understanding of the 12 conditions, what it takes to be a good citizen in a democracy,” he said. If that’s the case, Soder added, then what of the students who failed to gain admission to the UW, let alone those who never graduated from high school? While some Washington schools have made inroads in teaching participatory democracy, “the difficulty is in sustaining those gains,” he said.
Meeting the challenge will require paying attention to curricula, pedagogy, assessment and teacher education, Soder said. “Just because you taught it doesn’t mean they learned it,” he said, and assessing whether students understand the civic education he espouses requires “more than a fill-in-the-bubble test.” Asked by NEWS attorney Edmund Robb about the revenue implication of teaching democracy, Soder said: “You need smaller class size. You need more teachers and more instructional time… You’re going to have to pay people.”
Beginning her testimony at the end of Wednesday’s proceedings was Mary Jean Ryan of Seattle, chair of the Washington State Board of Education. A chart that showed the achievement gap of students based on race “indicates that we have a lot of work to do,” she told NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne. The gap would be significant for low-income students as well, she said. “No question, there’s tons of evidence that low-income kids, kids of color, can handle rigorous content,” she said later. “We have many, many schools delivering rigorous content and kids are doing fantastic, including low-income, low-English learners.”
The State Board wants every student to be “an active and informed participant in civic life and democracy… to carry out responsibility as a citizen requires a high degree of critical thinking and ability to reason,” among other knowledge and skills, Ryan said. The State Board has proposed requiring students to earn 24 credits to graduate from high school because the current 19-credit standard “doesn’t meet the minimum requirement” to enter four-year colleges in Washington, she said.
The additional credits would be in such subjects as math and science and “not 24 of (just) anything,” Ryan said. “It should be a set of courses that open doors for you after high school.” For now, she said, “the problem we have is that many students – as many as half going from high school to community college directly – are needing to take, you could say, remedial classes when they show up.”
Coming up on Thursday: Steve Aos, associate director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, is expected to testify in the morning. Mary Jean Ryan, chair of the Washington State Board of Education, will resume her testimony in the afternoon.