By Regina Elmi | Guest Columnist
Five years ago, our state Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case McCleary v. Washington that our state was failing to provide the quality public education mandated by our state constitution. My name is Regina Elmi. I am a resident of Renton and a parent in the Renton School District. As a parent and community member here in Renton, I have stood by as year after year now, our state legislators have fallen short on their responsibility to resolve this issue. But this year we have the opportunity to end the partisan bickering, failed negotiations and promises “deal with this next year.”
With no McCleary solution, Washington students have suffered for years in an underfunded, inequitable public education system that continues to fail them.
It’s no secret Washington’s public education system is in dire need of fixing. One in five Washington students don’t graduate from high school, putting our state at an appalling 41st in the nation for graduation rates. Just 50 percent of students read and write at grade level. Nationally, Washington state ranks 50th for its achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. We can’t stand for this any longer.
This is not just a funding issue. At stake is how we actually set our future generations up for success. As a citizen I know that dumping more money into a broken system won’t work. A real solution must ensure that our tax dollars are targeting student need and making sure that our programs are working.
Here in Renton, these facts and their consequences are felt in our local schools and neighborhoods. Our community’s most underserved students, often students from low-income households and students of color, are too often denied the same educational experience as their White, affluent peers. This inequity is spotlighted in our local test scores and in the sheer number and quality of in-school resources and supports provided to students, or lack thereof. Simply put, our state’s inequitable public education system is having a real and appreciable impact on our kids here locally. How come the students who need us most are getting the least help?
Renton has such extreme income inequality. Areas of the city are completely different, depending on where you live. And our schools in Renton are not all equal. Schools in Skyway are nowhere near the quality of those in the east side of Renton, and even now we are seeing changes in the Highland area. It is sad that we investing less in our neighborhoods that are more diverse. We need to put more in our children’s future, and there is no better investment than education. As a co-founder of the grassroots group Somali Parents Education Board (SPEB), we are working on ensuring that parents have a say in our education system. SPEB is working closely with families in Skyway and other areas of the Renton School District to teach them how to talk to our school board members and legislators about our education needs. We need to make sure more money is going in to our schools so that our children have the opportunity for success.
It’s time the Washington state Legislature end the biggest inequity in the Washington public education system: how we fund our schools. In this special legislative session, it’s critical our legislators fairly fund education and take big steps toward leveling the playing field for students who are homeless, living in poverty, in foster care, have special needs, are English language learners or are falling behind. To do this, legislators must not only add more funding into the public education system, but also introduce policies that will fundamentally fix our education system to make it equitable and provide every student the opportunity to succeed.
I’m proud to be a part of the Campaign for Student Success, a diverse 40-members-strong coalition of education advocates, parents, business and community leaders and fighters for equity from all around Washington. We are urging legislators to consider specific, student-centered solutions that will make Washington’s public education system more equitable:
1. Focus on directing more dollars to high-poverty districts. This means making two major changes to tackle current policies that make our system unfair: eliminating the staff mix ratio so funding goes to students, not systems. And fixing inequities in the levy system so ALL students have a fair chance.
2. Add more money and additional weight to certain student-targeted programs. This means directing our new dollars for more for existing student-targeted programs including the Learning Assistance Program (LAP), Transitional Bilingual Instructional Program, Dual Credit Programs, Special Education, Career and Technical Education and Highly Capable Program. Our campaign is asking for $1 billion more into these systems. Imagine the difference it would make.
3. Promote transparency to ensure funding actually reaches students. We can do this by ensuring all school spending is reported in the same way and by ensuring school-level data on how funding is spent is publicly available. Our school system must be accountable to us.
Legislators, it is time to be the heroes that our families need, and our kids deserve. You have the power to ensure our education system is equitable and helps ALL Washington kids now, and for generations to come. Our kids deserve more than politics overshadowing their needs. It’s time for real, sustainable change that will make an impact for every Washington student.