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April 28, 2009 12:56 PM

Civil Disagreement: Can the state afford to redefine basic education?

Posted by Lynne Varner

Civil disagreements with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey, members of the Seattle Times editorial board is a weekly feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Bruce and Lynne often disagree on major issues. Here they take on the idea of redefining basic education to include such things as preschool.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner:Bruce, There is a lot of naysaying over the state Legislature's approval of an updated definition of basic education. But they did the right thing.

First, why it matters. Our state is compelled by its constitution to provide every child with a basic education. Thirty years ago a basic education was enough. These days, when companies like Microsoft are forced to hire more and more workers from abroad and only about half of our high school graduates go to college, the term "basic" deserved to enter the 21st century.

The new definition includes such basics for schools as all-day kindergarten, technology and a high-school standard of six periods a day so students aren't scrambling to graduate with the right set of credits. It envisions an educational system less dependent on property-tax levies and more reliant on the state general fund.

It will be expensive, anywhere from $4 billion to double that amount additional going into educational coffers. The bill that just passed the Legislature calls for phase-in efforts and incremental budget increases in education.

Consider the money an investment in our collective futures. Our children can either emerge from the public system well-educated and able to compete globally or we can welcome them back into their old rooms and watch as American firms pick the best and brightest from everywhere in the world but here.

You pay for what you get.

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, I know you're for education. So am I. Preschool and some of those other things included: I sent my son to preschool while he was still in pull-ups. So it is tempting to say, "Let's redefine basic education and let the state do it." But I don't favor it.

Two reasons:

First, the financial reason. Here we are, economy in the outhouse, education cut, social programs cut, stealing from the capital budget, shorting the state employee pension funds, no cost-of-living raises and, above all, relying on $3 billion in Obama money (borrowed from China), and we are talking about what we want to spend more on. This is ridiculous. The state does not have more. It has less. Given the budget just passed, the state will face another $3.2 billion deficit two years from now. We don't have the money for this.

Second, a deeper reason. What we call "public schools" are really government schools. Schooling has been a state function for 120 years, at least. But in my opinion it was a mistake to let government provide education. It could have subsidized education for the poor, or maybe for all parents, without providing it--that is, without making schools government property and teachers government employees. In the private (and probably not-for-profit) sector education would have had more diversity of thought, more choices and more innovation. It would have been less monolithic, less bureaucratic, and entirely less political.

Well, we didn't do it that way. Elementary, junior high and high school public education is what it is, and is hugely resistant to change. I realize that. But I don't want to add to it. Preschool is largely out of the state's gravitational pull, and I would keep it that way. If you want to help poor people, give them vouchers. It's the same as housing: Section 8 housing vouchers have their problems, but they are better than public housing projects.

That is why I would not expand the scope of public education by redefining it.

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