Teachers and textbooks: a prime cut

Folks of a certain age may remember a Seattle-area used-car dealer who didn’t have much use for public education.

For several years in the 1970s, whenever a school levy was on the ballot, the businessman paid for television ads in opposition; against the visual image of a butcher’s knife carving through a piece of lardaceous pork, he urged citizens to “vote no” to “cut the fat” out of the school budget. The message worked; levies went down to defeat, programs were cut and a junior high school was closed. And the perception of school budgets as hopeless morasses of wasted tax dollars hounds many school districts to this day. (For proof, read the letters columns in the South Kitsap or Bremerton newspapers next time a funding measure rolls around there.)

Thankfully, Bainbridge denizens are a more enlightened bunch, and have shown their commitment to public education time and again through strong levy and construction bond

support – and through their generosity in supplemental fund drives. We’re confident that will prove true again, as the Bainbridge Public Schools Trust kicks into gear an effort to raise $200,000 to hire more teachers and fund adoption of a new, district-wide science curriculum. (The drive should not be confused with the Washington Education Trust Fund, a statewide initiative that may appear on the November ballot.)

When volunteers come to your door, one “key message” you’ll be hearing is that amongst 296 Washington public school districts, Bainbridge ranks a pitiable 271st in per-pupil funding. That is thanks largely to an arbitrary, state-imposed cap on school levies that varies by district; simply explained, some

districts can ask their constituents for more money, some less, even if the voters are willing to pay more.

Schools need money. But is it always that simple?

Conservative critics inevitably charge that “throwing more money at schools” is no guarantee of student

success. We suppose they raise a fair question: If Bainbridge public schools are so woeful in per-pupil spending, yet shine so splendidly in standardized testing, matriculation to four-year colleges, and the various other benchmarks by which we

measure student achievement, doesn’t that prove that money isn’t the sole determinant?

We put the question to Ken Crawford, Bainbridge schools superintendent; he was quick to credit an excellent teaching staff and the quality of Bainbridge Island families. “You have to consider the family support given to these students,” Crawford argues. “They come from families that value education, so it’s a 24-hour-a-day activity rather than a 7-8 hour-a-day event.”

At the same time, he notes, keeping class sizes at a manageable level is directly and irrevocably tied to school funding. Adding a single teaching position costs at least $60,000 in salary and benefits. (Last year’s BPST drive funded two and a half teachers.) And this year, revamping the district’s K-12

science curriculum with new textbooks and hands-on kits will certainly hinge on available monies. A new language arts curriculum three years ago was not fully implemented for want of funds, while the new math program last year required a dip into capital reserves. In both cases, private dollars would have made considerable difference.

Who knows what our used car salesman would make of the Bainbridge Public Schools Trust and its “Promises Made, Promises Kept” campaign: the very notion of citizens being asked to fund public schools – above and beyond the taxes they’ve already approved at the polls – would, we suspect, just be a new reason to gripe about “fat.”

But islanders are smarter than that; they know that teachers and textbooks are about as “lean” a cut as it gets.

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