In eight weeks Tacoma votes on school bonds worth $500 million, $10,000 for a family of four. What are we buying? Is it necessary? Will it build better schools?
Construction bonds have a clear benefit: They create jobs, as many as 6,000 “job years” in this case. That’s a big boost for our economy. (Road construction and affordable housing also create jobs; they’re just not as appealing as schools.) But if the goal is really to grow the economy, consider that all construction spending at the University of Washington Tacoma is under $200 million. Wouldn’t a larger university help our economy more than a few new schools?
But kids have to get into the university, or apprenticeships, or a decent job. Will half a billion dollars buy better-prepared students? Not likely. The last bond issue, $425 million authorized in 2001, went to 13 schools. In 12 of them, academic performance declined after construction was completed. And national research shows very little positive correlation between construction spending and improved education.
OK, classroom performance won’t improve; maybe we just need more classrooms. Bond advocates say Tacoma will add 1,100 more students in the next eight years, a 4 percent increase. But we already have capacity for 3,400 more students in existing buildings.
Foss, for example, is less than 60 percent full, yet the district wants to build a new school for SAMI. And remember the two schools closed last year because they weren’t needed? The district wants to build new schools in their place. Prudent management suggests optimizing the schools we have; new bonds would maintain excess capacity at 12 percent in 2020.
The evidence is overwhelming: Great teaching trumps HVAC. In 2007, McKinsey & Co. studied 25 national school systems and concluded that “the only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction.”
Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research states: “Research consistently shows teaching is the single most important school-based factor in a student’s academic growth.” Duh.
So how good is teaching in Tacoma? That’s an awkward question. Compared with either urban districts in Washington or other Pierce County districts, Tacoma is at the bottom in percent of teachers with advanced degrees and in percent of teachers with national board certification. Obviously there are great teachers without a master’s or national certification – maybe a lot of them. But the comparative data paints a dismal picture.
The future isn’t much brighter. Nationally only half of new teachers took education classes in college or had any student teaching experience. And only half of new teachers are state-certified in the subjects they teach. These are bright, motivated people, but it’s like recruiting surgeons in a butcher shop: You just hope for the best.
Somehow school systems from Singapore to Chicago have dramatically upgraded the quality of teaching but we will not – or cannot – do it in Tacoma. The bond proposal is a white flag; we can’t improve what happens in our classrooms so we’ll build more of them.
Proponents argue that school bonds don’t detract from classroom performance because the money comes from different sources. Baloney. Every dollar comes from taxpayers who – to quote Otis Redding – “do get wearied.” And construction disrupts classrooms, sometimes displacing students for years. Most important, large-scale construction diverts leadership attention. Even great leaders can’t improve everything at once.
I’m happy – even eager – to pay for better education, but with apologies to friends in construction and kids in run-down schools, I’m voting “no” in February. The bond proposal is a red flag for me. I’m bullish on our teachers and principals and our kids and I want to send a message to the education-construction complex: Give us better teaching and better classroom outcomes. Then you can indulge your urge to build again.Ken Miller helped start Great Schools Tacoma! in 1986; his children graduated from Stadium High School. He is one of six reader columnists whose work appears on this page.