Parents should join forces to push for school reform

By the Herald editorial staff

Our support for this week's school levies shouldn't imply that money is the only problem.

Or the biggest problem.

Resistance to change -- blame it on bureaucratic inertia and entrenched special interests -- makes meaningful school reform nearly impossible to achieve.

You don't have to look any farther than dropout rates to know Washington's schools are in trouble. Even under the most optimistic estimates, about one-fourth of our students fail to complete high school. For poor and minority students, the numbers are far worse.

But when it comes to fixing the system, change never amounts to more than minor tweaking. Innovation barely gets lip service.

No wonder the pace of progress is so unsatisfactory.

It's why we're impressed with Scott Oki, the former Microsoft executive and philanthropist who is devoting his considerable energies to school reform.

His book, Outrageous Learning: An Education Manifesto, outlines 11 ideas for fundamentally changing Washington's schools.

His proposal includes giving principals more power to run schools and allowing them to hire qualified teachers, even if they don't hold teaching credentials.

Oki wants parents to have more choices about where their kids will go to school and for students more time to learn. He call for an army of volunteers to help classroom teachers.

He also believes public education dollars should be reallocated so more is spent educating students. Right now, only46 percent of public school employees in Washington are classroom teachers, according to the Washington Policy Center.

But any real progress depends on the final plank in Oki's school reform platform -- "Establish a culture of excellence by embracing change and relentlessly pursuing innovation."

We're not convinced every piece of Oki's proposal makes sense. He's used a business executive's perspective in examining the state's school system.

It's probably worth noting that most businesses fail.

But for too many of our children, Washington's public schools are already failing. Sudden, sweeping change is probably unrealistic and may not even be desirable, but bold action is warranted.

We're intrigued by Colorado's approach, where one of the worst schools in the state -- closed because of its atrocious performance -- was reopened as an experiment in innovation.

The Denver School Board enticed the principal at one of the state's best private schools with promises of a free hand in his new assignment. The Legislature changed state law to make the school exempt from volumes of state guidelines and labor contracts.

The result at Denver's Manual High School is encouraging, if not yet conclusive. Test scores have doubled since the bad old days before reform, but are still well below state averages. The dropout rate went from 33 percent to 13 percent, according to the Denver Post.

The same thing can't happen here, not under our current public school system. Very little in the way of innovation can reach Washington state classrooms.

Oki has started floating a new idea that's not outlined in his book. Oki asks, What if parents formed their own union to advocate for change?

Teachers, administrators and even school board members all belong to associations and unions that lobby the Legislature.

Why shouldn't parents pool their resources?

That's not just a good idea, but it may also be a prerequisite to launching any significant school reforms. There's power in ideas, but in politics there's even more power in numbers.