Spokane's Dropout Problem Needs a Real Focus, Not More Money

Nov 24, 2010

Spokane's Spokesman Review newspaper published this column on November 28 as part of WPC's monthly column.

The signs were all there—literally thousands of them. Yard signs urged Spokane voters this fall to “put children first.” Spokane has a school dropout problem. But Spokane voters wisely rejected a poorly-drafted initiative that tried to tug at people’s heart strings. The Children’s Investment Fund had just one problem: it wouldn’t have worked.

Voters made it clear the dropout problem isn’t going to be solved by simply throwing more money at it. The measure was defeated by a nearly two-to-one margin, 36-64%. So now what?

It should be noted that no one really knows the extent of the problem. In debates, supporters of the Children’s Investment Fund would often casually toss out numbers like 30 or 40%. Half the time they used graduation rates, other times they used dropout rates.  But failing to graduate doesn’t mean a student dropped out of school. And school officials in Spokane recently admitted they have never had a good way of tracking how many students leave and end up graduating from another school.

Supporters say the election result was more about the economy than anything else, but perhaps they are missing the larger point. This initiative sought to increase property taxes to fund local programs in an attempt to lower the dropout rate. The problem? The programs weren’t defined and the successes using this approach were nowhere to be found.  

A similar program in Seattle cost taxpayers more than $100 million, and yet today the dropout rate in Seattle Public Schools is higher than before. A similar fund in Portland cost city taxpayers $12 million, and the dropout rate in Portland Public Schools actually increased. The managers of the Portland fund say any successes they have seen have been anecdotal at best.

In both cases, and in the failed Spokane attempt, the programs did not address the root causes of the problem. In a recent survey by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dropouts were asked why they left school. Nearly 70% said they were not motivated in class to work hard and 47% said their class work wasn’t interesting. When asked what would keep them in school, 81% said better teachers and curriculum changes. Sixty-two percent said more classroom discipline was needed.

So how does increasing property taxes to fund private non-profit groups change those dynamics? The answer is it doesn’t. And voters knew it.

Research shows the number one factor in whether a child gets a good education is having a high-quality teacher in the classroom. Right now in Washington state, union rules and teacher tenure laws make it nearly impossible to remove an ineffective teacher from the classroom. Collective bargaining rules also bar schools from retaining and rewarding good teachers- of which there are thousands in Washington state. In recent years, union opposition to change has emerged as the primary obstacle to improving public schools.

To make the classroom more interesting, as students suggest, Washington state could remove its mandatory teacher certification system. The academic skills a teacher brings to a classroom confer ten times the educational advantage compared to that conferred by a teaching credential. Experienced professionals, like an engineer who wants to teach high school math or a retired local businesswoman who wants to teach economics, could bring work experience and excitement about numbers to the classroom in a way a union-certified teacher might not.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, for example, may want to teach a computer science course at a local high school, but state certification laws and union rules bar him from teaching in public school.

The argument will be made that if only the schools had more money they would work better. That ignores the fact that Spokane taxpayers are, this year, generously devoting more than $53 million in local funds to Spokane Public Schools- more than ever before. And the Spokane Public Schools budget this year—$311 million—is larger than ever.  And yet the student dropout rate hasn’t changed and student achievement is declining.

If we really want to fix the dropout problem in Spokane Public Schools, we need to concentrate on the classroom first. Voters get it, and made the right call. The question is, do education policymakers get it, and what will they do now?