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Time to renew our commitment to public education

Published on: December 01, 2006

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

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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