Good for Congress, but what about schools?

By Dan Evans and Slade Gorton, Special to the Herald

As we begin the New Year, Washington celebrates the addition of a new congressional seat.

Our population has grown by 14 percent in the past decade, making Washington the 13th most populous state in the nation. At a time when many states are in decline, we are increasing our clout.

The good news is that this growth provides evidence of the opportunities here -- population follows jobs. The bad news is that our children won't be the ones to benefit from these opportunities unless we do a better job of preparing them for the challenges of the 21st century.

From early learning to graduate schools, our education system is failing to make the grade.

Fifty percent of the state's children are not ready to succeed when they enter kindergarten. About one out of every four students who enter ninth grade fail to graduate from high school, and that number is dramatically worse for minority students. While other states are closing the achievement gap between low-income students, children of color and their peers, our state's achievement gap actually is growing.

The Center on Education Policy recently reported that it will take 105 years to close the fourth-grade achievement gap in Washington, if we continue at our current pace. Our state and our students cannot afford to wait that long for improvement. The same study predicted it will take Louisiana 12.5 years to close that same gap.

Washington has the fourth-highest concentration of tech-based industries in the country, but ranks 46th for participation in science and engineering graduate programs.

We continue to grow as a state, but these statistics show that we are not preparing our students to compete. Indeed, we fear that there is a rising generation in Washington that will be less well-educated, in terms of degree attainment, than previous generations. If this happens, the more exciting and better-paying opportunities in our state will be left to young people who come from other states and nations.

Fortunately, with bold action we can address these failures, even in this tough economy.

As legislators search for ways to balance the state's budget shortfall, they must examine how our education shortfalls contribute to the problem.

Fifty-four percent of high school graduates from the class of 2008 required remedial courses upon entering community or technical colleges. If students like these graduated ready for college, the state would save an estimated $125 million a year in community college remediation costs. Dropouts from that same class of 2008 will cost our state almost $7.3 billion in lost wages over their lifetimes. Washington has a fiscal and a moral obligation to ensure that students graduate ready to succeed in college and work.

With economic powerhouses such as Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks located here, Washington ranks high on its progress toward an innovation-based economy. But our state needs to encourage similar innovation in our schools.

One way to do this would be to learn from experiences in other states and develop a framework for high-quality charter schools. Washington is one of only ten states that do not allow charter schools.

Other solutions include making student growth data a key factor in all teacher and principal evaluations, and using performance -- as opposed to tenure -- to drive staffing decisions in our schools. Many states across the nation, including a number without our clout, are leading the charge to improve education in these areas while Washington continues to lag behind.

We must ensure that today's tight budget environment does not cripple higher education's ability to spur innovation and job creation. We should support the Governor's Higher Education task force recommendations to increase tuition-setting authority for our four-year universities; to create new financial aid resources to keep their doors open to all; and to establish new, clear measures of performance accountability for the institutions.

Finally, Gov. Chris Gregoire should be recognized for taking up the task of consolidating Washington's Early Learning and K-12 education systems. Our state has long needed a streamlined system of oversight and accountability that follows students from pre-K to their high school graduation.

It's time for all of us -- legislators, parents, students and citizens -- to make tough decisions. Only then will our young people be able to reap the benefits of the opportunities being created here.

* Daniel Jackson Evans served three terms as governor of Washington and represented the state in the U.S. Senate.

* Slade Gorton served three terms as state attorney general and two terms in the U.S. Senate.