Did you know that while Mercer Island's on-time graduation rate for public schools is 98 percent, Washington state's average is closer to 75 percent? Or that half of the state's 7th graders are behind state standards in both math and reading?
About two-dozen local and Eastside education and political leaders gathered on Thursday at a public forum at the , sponsored by education reform coalition Excellent Schools Now (ESN) to discuss K-12 education in Washington state and how it might be improved or reformed.
"I would love to get every single person in the state of Washington to know what the state of education is here and what they can do about it," said forum coordinator Brittany Gibson of Stand for Children, an ESN affiliated non-profit.
The forum asked those attending to gather into groups and describe what they thought was working and what wasn't in local schools. She also asked them to consider a strategy drafted by ESN called A+ Washington that she believes could improve educational outcomes of students statewide — including expanded Early Learning access, increasing college and career readiness and improving the quality of teachers and accountability. Gibson described her own involvement in education through her background as a teacher in a disadvantaged area of Austin, TX, where few children actually knew someone who went on to complete a degree in higher education.
"It drives me still, to this day, to make sure that all kids have access to college."
While Stand for Children is a major suppporter of charter schools, including Initiative 1240 — which would allow them in the state if passed by voters in November — the concept received scant mention in the forum as a possible tool to help improve education in the state. ESN, which is a non-partisan group, has no position on charter schools and the A+ Washington plan makes no excplicit mention of them.
Also in the audience was Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, who was invited to attend by organizers. He said he supported a number of ideas developed in the A+ Washington plan (as does his opponent, Democrat and former US Rep. Jay Inslee) and said as State Attorney General had visited a number of low-income schools across the state that needed improvement.
"I wanted to hear what parents in a wealthy school district might say," he said. "When talking about the need for education funding, I want to be able to speak to all parents in the state."
Most participants agreed that Mercer Island schools succeeded where others failed because it had a high-level of parental and community involvement, a healthy relationship between the school administration and teachers, focus on early learning, excellent teachers, and the fact that the Island was willing to tax itself at a higher rate to support instruction and teachers. Around 95 percent of Mercer Island students were accepted to post-secondary schools this year.
"Lake Washington, Bellevue, Issaquah, Mercer Island — the Eastside school Districts are working," said 41st District State Sen. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island). "The single greatest correlation in K-12 education is zip code to success"
"The MIEA and MISD have always worked together, and the staff perspective has always been made part of the solution," said MIEA President Tani Lindquist.
The gathering said the system was failing students elsewhere because of weak administration, over regulation, poor labor relations, a flawed state-funding formula, blaming teachers and a lack of ability to serve a diverse student population.
"There are deficiencies in our district, but there are greater deficiencies in others," said Mercer Island School Board Director Brian Emanuels, who once worked as a teacher for one year at Cleveland High School in Seattle.
Mercer Island parent and Stand for Children board member Judy Chase took the opportunity to address McKenna on the issue of state-versus-local funding of education.
"The levy structure is broken, but we don't want you to take that power away from us," Chase said. "We don't want to shortchange our own kids."
McKenna was later asked by participants to put on his State Attorney's hat and describe the McCleary decision, a case decided by the State Supreme Court that declared the state was failing in its duty to adequately fund basic education. McKenna also noted, however, that he felt the decision had also found that there was a problem with how the money was raised, such as an over-reliance on local school levies. Nearly 27 percent of MISD funding last year was from local levies.
"There is agreement in a bipartisan subcommittee to make a levy swap, which will be done by increasing local reliance on state levy," he said. "But how do you do that without punishing property rich districts? We're going to have to work on that in the coming year very carefully."
ESN is a coalition of 36 education business and community-based organizations "working to achieve meaningful education reform that increases student achievement, closes the achievement gap and prepares students to be college and career-ready." Member organizations include the Washington PTA, the League of Education Voters and Stand for Children.
(Ed. Note: A previous version of this story stated that the Washington Education Assocation were members of ESN. That is incorrect. Mercer Island Patch regrets the error.)