Parental choice, more power for local school boards is key to fixing K-12 education

By Sen. Doug Ericksen

Fixing Washington

When you send your kids to school, would you rather they learn the periodic table of the elements or the 18 forms of gender?

Silly question. If new mandates are approved in Olympia this year, no one will have a choice. Mandatory sex education, starting in kindergarten, is a top agenda item for the Legislature’s urban majority. Not just the birds and the bees, but state-approved theories of gender identity, sexual orientation and relationships, as interpreted by social-activist groups.

Many of us are dumbfounded that the Legislature would intrude in an area best left to parents, to promote what is essentially a political philosophy. And it calls our priorities into question. While activists see our schools as a tool to advance an agenda, the rest of us are more concerned with making sure our schools provide a proper grounding in reading, writing and arithmetic; that they keep our kids challenged and that our children perform at grade level. On this score, many of our schools are failing to deliver, especially in urban areas. There’s a way we can address this issue – by giving parents more choices.

When parents have the ability to choose, every other problem we face in our schools will be on the way to being fixed inside a week.

Here’s how we can do it:

  • Empower parents to decide where and how their children are educated. If a school is failing or a state-mandated curriculum leaves parents uneasy, let them choose a different school. State funding should follow the student. We already do this in a limited way, with charter schools, though the K-12 establishment is doing its best to strangle them in infancy. Charter schools are really just the start – we need a broader approach to give parents more options.
  • Empower local school boards to give them greater control. When we give Olympia too much power over our schools, we allow political factions at the statehouse to dictate what our children are taught. Yet curriculums that satisfy Seattle liberals will never be a good fit for Omak. Instead, we should restore the ability of local school boards and principals to make decisions that suit their communities – and get the state out of the curriculum-setting business.
  • Restructure the relationship between school boards, the community and teachers. Right now the single most powerful player in K-12 education is the state teachers’ union. We can’t blame it for advocating the interests of union members, but we shouldn’t confuse that with support for our hardworking teachers, our students and schools. The union holds all the cards when it negotiates contracts with school boards. It’s why we don’t have merit pay for good teachers, and why seniority is valued more than skill. The Legislature can start by eliminating collective bargaining for teachers. We’ve already done great work in establishing a statewide salary schedule. Salaries are one of the few areas where central control is justifiable – the courts have told us to eliminate local pay disparities, an inconvenient fact Olympia’s urban majority chooses to ignore.

One way to enable this transformation is with a voucher system, making state funding available for schools outside the existing public K-12 system – as I have proposed in Senate Bill 6608. The moment parents start voting with their feet, we can expect school boards to be more responsive to community desires.

We also need to make sure school boards are able to respond. Local decision-makers are best-suited to make what ought to be local decisions. You probably won’t bump into the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee at your local supermarket, but there’s a good chance you’ll see a school board member in the check-out line.

What works in Lynden or Ferndale might be very different than what works for downtown Seattle, Spokane or the Tri-Cities. We need to respect the peoples’ right to make decisions for themselves.