A generational shift troubles Mary Jean Ryan, chair of the Washington State Board of Education. “We’re seeing the present generation coming into the work force getting less educational attainment than those leaving,” she said Thursday as the trial over education funding ended its third week. “The U.S. used to be at the forefront in the world but we have stagnated in some respects and are slipping.” Washington is part of the problem, she indicated, because the K-12 system is “broken” and chronically underfunded by the State.

The Basic Education Finance Task Force, a group created by the 2007 Legislature, studied whether the State is meeting its constitutional duty to fully fund education. In its final report earlier this year, the task force recommended strengthening the definition of basic education. Ryan agreed, saying State funding has “not kept pace” with standard operational expenses of school districts. “Perhaps at one time the State’s allocations were sufficient,” she said on Day 11 of the trial. “That’s eroded over time. What’s occurred, with a willing electorate, (is that districts have) relied more and more on their local levies.” That local money, once used “to fund extra things, has become a source to fund basic things,” she said.

Washington’s education system “needs additional investments for K-12 basic costs and increased opportunity for students,” Ryan said. In particular, the State Board advocates for more money to fund its proposal to raise the number of credits needed for high school graduation from 19 to 24.

NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne questioned Ryan about a guest editorial she wrote that was published in February in the Seattle Times. “Washington state is in the cellar of national education statistics,” the opinion piece began. “We are 44th in total expenditures per student, 35th in high-school-graduation requirements, and the list goes on. We are veritable front-runners in the race to the bottom. It’s time we climb out of the cellar.”

She also wrote: “The Washington Constitution is clear about education being the state’s paramount duty and does not absolve us of our responsibility when times get tough. In recent, years the paramount duty has gotten short shrift. This has to change. We are an affluent state that is grossly under-investing in K-12 — under-investing, underperforming and under-expecting. Today, we aren’t providing the necessary opportunities as part of what the state is calling basic education. We shortchange kids and force local communities to use their precious school-levy dollars to augment teacher pay and basic operations. ‘Basic’ has come to mean ‘partial.’ We force districts to choose between student learning and time for teachers to plan better instruction. We ignore powerful research on early learning and we undervalue applied learning and the arts.”

Ryan told Ahearne that her purpose in writing the editorial was to “develop the idea (that) to provide a quality education for kids in our state, we have work to do.” At the back end, that means increasing the number of high school graduation credits so that students are better prepared for college. That might not happen unless work is also done at the front end: “If we want to get serious about maximizing educational attainment, then early learning can’t be ignored,” Ryan said. At the time she wrote her editorial, she said, she was trying to “create a sense of urgency” on behalf of generations of Washington children because they receive only “one shot” at their public education.

Also testifying Wednesday was economist Steve Aos, assistant director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan organization that conducts research for the Legislature. The institute provided staff support to the Basic Education Finance Task Force, looking at research related to early learning, full-day kindergarten, dropout rates, staff development and other matters. Aos qualified many of his answers, explaining that research was scarce in some areas, and thus less conclusive, and more prevalent in others.

A review of 23 studies indicated that “full-day kindergarten boosts short-term (test) scores,” he said. The bad news, he added, is that “people have not figured out how to sustain the short-term gains through K-12.” The combined effect of preschool for low-income children, voluntary full-day kindergarten, higher requirements for graduation and other recommendations of the task force has a strong potential benefit for students and society, he said. If the task force proposal was implemented, the chance of students being convicted of a crime is 20 percent less, he estimated, making it “one of the most efficacious crime-reduction strategies on our list.”

During his cross-examination by Senior Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark, Aos said the full implementation of the task force proposal would likely raise the statewide graduation rate to 81 percent after 14 years, up from about 72.5 percent. No state has graduation rates at 90 percent or above, Aos said. That’s because greater investment is needed to get close to 100 percent of anything – what economists describe as “diminishing returns,” he said, and erasing the dropout rate would take more resources. Using another example, he said someone attempting to lose weight might enjoy great success at the beginning but find the last 10 pounds the hardest to shed.

Aos said that too few studies exist about the effect of teacher professional develop on test scores to draw conclusions. What’s most promising in improving student outcomes is “a good teacher,” he said. “Teachers matter – some teachers more than others. Some teachers are able to get better (student achievement) than other teachers.” The State should “identify policies to get the best teachers in the school system,” Aos said. “Our test scores would climb rapidly.”

Coming up on Monday: Testimony from James Kelly of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and Roberto Maestas of El Centro de la Raza.

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