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GUEST COLUMN

WEA attacks six senators for trying to improve schools

Executives at the Washington Education Association union (WEA) recently fired off a hard-hitting flyer leveled against six education reform leaders of both parties in the state Senate. The hit piece is directed against Democrats Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, and Republicans Steve Litzow of Mercer Island, Andy Hill of Redmond, Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup and Joe Fain of Kent.

WEA executives claim these lawmakers are "shirking their duty" to provide amply for the education of all children living within the borders of our state as the constitution requires. The piece calls these senators' sincere efforts to improve schools "bogus" and "their irresponsibility."

One of my research colleagues called the hit piece "mean," adding "I thought the WEA was supposed to be against bullying."

The trouble started because these senators are advancing solid policy reforms which, without their bipartisan teamwork, would have been consigned to a quiet death in some legislative graveyard.

These reforms include such radical ideas as enrolling highly talented students in advanced classes, providing intervention and support so every child reads at grade level by third grade, making faculty assignments based on mutual agreement between teachers and principals, and giving schools letter grades so parents can know whether their children are receiving a high-quality public education.

These legislative leaders now find themselves at the receiving end of a political attack by one of the state's most powerful public unions.

A Northwest News Network analysis recently identified the WEA union as running the highest-spending lobby operation in Olympia, and in The Seattle Times, editorial writer Lynne Varner insightfully asks, "Does WEA now stand for We Eviscerate Anyone?"

WEA union executives represent public school teachers, and they receive some $33 million a year in mandatory dues, yet they do not seem to feel they have much role themselves in carrying out the state's paramount duty to educate children. This is odd because most funding for teacher salaries and benefits, and the primary source of union funding, comes from the state budget.

Union executives seem to view the constitution's paramount duty as applying only to others, and that this duty is limited to adding more public money to the current monopoly school system. But don't state-funded educators and their union executives also share in the paramount duty to educate children?

Education funding is $10.1 billion per year, the highest level ever.

Per-student funding is $10,300 per year, more than many private schools.

Average teacher pay is $61,000, plus 30 percent more in benefits.

Average administrator pay is $105,000, plus 24 percent more in benefits.

Yet only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom, over one-quarter of students fail to graduate and low-income and minority students face a looming achievement gap.

The approach of simply increasing funding has been tried, and it failed. Gov. Chris Gregoire boosted education spending by 32 percent, and later expressed disappointment about the poor results.

Today, K-12 education funding is at historic highs and, looking ahead, lawmakers will likely devote a large portion of the expected $2 billion rise in state revenue to schools in the next budget.

At the community level most people strongly support funding for local schools. Levies usually pass, often by wide margins (just last month voters in Seattle approved over $1 billion in school levies). At the state level and in our communities, it's fair to say taxpayers are doing their part.

People in our state work hard and we generously provide for public schools. The money just needs to be spent more effectively for the benefit of children.

Instead of berating six bipartisan state leaders who are trying to fix the system and help children, we should first answer the question, "Where does the money go?"

- Liv Finne is the director

of the Center for Education.

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