Opinion

What's going wrong in Washington?

In the wake of an earlier column about our state rejecting a $13.2 million education grant, people are asking, "What is going wrong in Washington?" Why was Washington the only state of seven to reject funding to improve math and science learning for public school students in advanced placement programs?

Our state's teachers union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), killed the grant because it included merit pay for teachers. But other heavily unionized states accepted the grant. What went wrong in Washington?

The students who would have benefited from this money are those who will fill the engineering, technology and advanced science jobs in the United States to help us compete with the rest of the world. It is so important that Bill and Melinda Gates and Michael and Susan Dell each donated $15 million to the program, and Exxon-Mobil contributed a whopping $100 million.

But our state missed a golden opportunity by rejecting the money. Our elected officials want to grow the aerospace, software, biotech and technology industries in Washington, but companies like Boeing, Microsoft, Amgen and Schweitzer Engineering Labs can't find skilled people to fill positions.

It also was a big setback for emerging technology leaders like Scott Keeney, CEO of Vancouver's nLight Photonics, when the National Math & Science Initiative (NMSI), announced that it ended Washington's grant because the WEA refused to budge on the issue of merit pay for teachers. The NMSI program pays teachers directly, but the WEA insisted that all the money be collectively bargained. Keeney spearheaded the Clark County MAP (Mentoring Advanced Placement) program and the NMSI grant would have been a logical extension for high tech professionals who volunteer to tutor students in advanced math and science.

Heavily unionized states like Massachusetts and Connecticut embraced the six-year grants. But Washington's teachers union wouldn't budge. How did Connecticut get the teachers union to go along with the NMSI grant?

First, a strong coalition of business, teachers, government and education leaders pulled together to secure and implement the grant under a program called Project Opening Doors.

Second, they hired Dr. J. A. Camille Vautour, a long-time school superintendent, to ramrod the project. Vautour approached 10 school districts in Connecticut and got nine of them to embrace the program.

Vautour bypassed state teachers union officials and put it to local teachers and school districts this way: "We have an opportunity to help our students and the NMSI grant is non-negotiable. They set the terms, not us, and if we are going to improve our math and science programs, we need to embrace the grant."

The savvy superintendent took the issue of merit pay off the table. He pointed out that only 22 percent of the money would go to teachers in pay for performance while the other 78 percent went to teacher training and tutoring.

Finally, he sold them on the idea that if students were successful on advanced placement tests in math and science, it would attract additional money from NMSI and the state.

The rest is history and on Sept. 6, 2007, Governor M. Jodi Rell (R) accepted a $13.2 million NMSI grant.

So, why all the fuss over a $13.2 million grant? Isn't that pocket change when it comes to education spending in our state?

True, but it is the signal it sends. Consider a couple of key facts:

"About a third of high school math students and two-thirds of those enrolled in physical science have teachers who did not major in the subject in college or are not certified to teach it.

"Only 29 percent of American fourth grade students, a third of eighth grade students, and barely 18 percent of 12th grade students perform at or above the proficient level in science.

"In China, virtually all high school students study calculus; in the United States, 13 percent study calculus.

So, when you look at the facts, you really have to wonder: What is going wrong in Washington?

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