Opinion: More Money Won't Help Seattle Public Schools

By Paul Guppy

As a parent with children in Seattle Public Schools, I've seen firsthand how deeply teachers care about their students. And as foster parents, my wife and I have spent countless hours working with concerned teachers to get troubled kids the services they need. Yet, like most public school parents, what we experience is a plodding, top-heavy district system that doesn't give teachers the support they need.

Only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom, and during layoffs the union requires, with few exceptions, that the youngest teachers be fired first. Local principals do not control their budgets and union work rules deny kids access to the best teachers. Every school parent knows "The List," the lengthy catalog of items you must buy each year for your local school. These are only examples. The district's problems go far beyond simple mismanagement of public funds.

That is why voters should reject the latest proposed Families and Education Levy and pump another $231 million into an unreformed system. It's true this money is administered separately by the city of Seattle to fund education-related programs. Still, adding more money would do little to help kids. It would only signal that district officials can avoid meaningful change. We've already learned how a mid-level official misused $1.8 million — a matter now under criminal investigation.

The news of financial problems at Seattle public schools is achingly familiar. It recalls when school officials couldn't account for $35 million, and an earlier superintendent resigned in disgrace.

Rather than consider the need for basic change, levy supporters assume spending more automatically helps children. This view mirrors the reflexive, blank-check mentality that is common in Seattle's education establishment.

More money won't help our public schools. Each time the seven-year Families and Education Levy was on the ballot (starting in 1990), voters were told it would reduce the achievement gap and help more students finish school. The city now reports the achievement gap between African American and white students is as high as ever, 50 percent, and one in three public school students fail to graduate.

The lack of critical thinking explains why spending more money does not help children learn. The Seattle Public Schools' annual budget is more than $500 million (not counting Families and Education money from the City), and the district spends more than $13,000 a year per student — well above the statewide average. Yet test scores are essentially flat, half of Seattle schools rank near the bottom on the state Achievement Index, more than half of 10th graders fail the math proficiency exam, and 32 percent of students drop out.

The establishment's response is to double down and hope for different results. Doubling the levy — as proposed — would raise property taxes at a time when many Seattle homeowners are struggling, foreclosures are up, and about one-third of mortgage holders owe more than their homes are worth. The property tax bill on an average Seattle home increased this year by $324, or about 8 percent, to $4,379. The levy would add another $134 on top of that.

Levy backers say these funds are managed by the city, and are insulated from the district's problems. Money is fungible. District officials simply trim back on certain programs and expect city funds to fill the gap. Voters should not think feeding $231 million into the current system will improve education for children, narrow the achievement gap or reduce the drop-out rate. It won't.

Renewing the levy would certainly protect the positions of grown-ups in the system, but schools should be about educating children, not providing jobs for adults.

We need an honest conversation about how we educate children in Seattle. Our schools need proven reforms, like letting principals control spending, teacher hiring and the educational program at their own schools. The union should let teachers to be rewarded and retained based on performance, not seniority, and parents should have more say in who educates their children.

We can't consider fresh ideas like these if the Families and Education Levy passes because, once they secure more money, district officials and the union will have no reason to listen. Not passing the levy, however, may prompt creative thinking about how Seattle's half-billion dollar school budget is spent, and that would lead to real reform and improved learning for all children.

Paul Guppy is Vice President for Research at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Seattle.

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