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Time to renew our commitment to public education

All children deserve a high-quality education: As parents -- and as members of a democratic society -- we know in our hearts that it's true. Yet, we can get caught up in the day-to-day debate about what constitutes a "good" education. Does that take place in a public school? A private school? A homeschool? An online school?

As the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, I know that our schools do a fine job of educating our children. I also believe that every family needs to choose the education environment -- public, private or home-based -- that is right for their child.

Here's what I don't believe: that public education has lesser value simply because it is public. The truth is, public schools -- especially those in urban areas like Seattle -- face many challenges. But we also have much to offer.

We are charged with educating all of the city's children, including English language learners (12 percent of Seattle students); those on free and reduced lunch programs (40 percent) and those receiving special education services (13 percent.) While some portray those statistics in a negative light, they actually present an amazing opportunity to enrich all children in a diverse setting that builds essential life skills.

It's critical to our future that children's early experiences include friendships, teamwork and learning opportunities alongside people who are different from them. The increasing diversity of our world requires that the next generation have the skills to live and work in our multicultural world.

Our children will inherit an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world that requires creative problem solvers and critical thinkers who are experts in collaboration. At the root of these skills are curiosity and empathy, which flourish when children have opportunities to both express their individual ideas and feelings and to respectfully listen to -- and learn how to value -- another's perspective.

This is the foundation for high-performing learning environments. In Seattle, we have made many gains in improving educational outcomes. In 2006, our students exceeded the state average in 11 out of 12 WASL categories for 4th, 7th and 10th graders. In reading, for example, fourth-grade students reached a milestone with 80 percent of students meeting or exceeding standard for the first time.

A few years ago, everyone heard about Seattle Schools' budget problems, but I am proud that our district is scheduled to end its third straight year with a budget surplus, increasing our reserves to over $20 million. Yet, despite these short-term successes, our five-year budget projections illustrate an ongoing deficit over time. It's a problem that impacts school districts statewide, as the state has failed to keep pace with the funding of K-12 education.

That's why in February 2007, Seattle voters will see two school funding measures on the ballot -- one for maintenance and operations (to pay for basics like teacher salaries, kindergarten, special education and bilingual services) and the other for capital projects (to replace water lines, improve air quality and renovate or replace worn-out buildings).

Seattle voters have consistently supported school levies since 1976. But the recent controversy generated by having to close and/or merge schools has overshadowed the good work done every day by our staff, teachers and parents on behalf of our students.

Controversies come and go, but the civic duty to educate our children remains. Throughout U.S. history, the support of public schools has helped democratize our nation, strengthen our communities and broaden opportunities for all people. It's time to renew our belief in the value of public education and recognize the critical role it plays in building a well-educated community committed to a thriving democracy.

Raj Manhas
has been Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools since 2003. He oversees the state's largest school district, which has 47,000 students and 8,000 employees.

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