What happens when parents get involved in their children’s education? Looking back we see a rich history of caring engagement and the accompanying benefits that it has brought to Washington State.

In the 1940s, Bellevue, Washington, began transforming from a farming community to the bustling metropolis and thriving tech hub it is today. Many veterans had returned from the war and found jobs at Boeing and Paccar. At the time, Kemper Freeman Sr., other school board members, and parents were determined to create a high-quality public school system that would attract families to the area, which in turn increased the available workforce.

In 1942 this group of parents created the Overlake School District by consolidating the independent school districts of Factoria, Hunts Point, Bellevue, Highland, Phantom Lake, Medina and Union High School. These small districts often had one-room schoolhouses with one teacher providing instruction to children in the first through eighth grades. Only some of them offered high school. School principals and administrators were rare. Teachers were not members of a union.

Then in 1950, school leaders renamed the district the Bellevue School District, which started with 1,910 students. The 1950s and 1960s were a period of rapid population growth, with the opening of new elementary, middle, and high schools. The school board hired strong superintendents who placed a premium on striving for excellence in student learning, and on hiring and retaining the best possible teachers.

A significant shift of influence: But as the decades passed, parental input became less welcome in K-12 public education. A key turning point in reducing the role of parents and teachers occurred in the late 1960s. Teachers were forced to join a union as a condition of employment, a policy later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the power of teachers’ unions increased, the level of parental input decreased. Today the Washington Education Association union is the most powerful special interest in the state, with more than 80,000 members and annual revenue, drawn from mandatory dues payments, of $47.8 million.

One example of union dominance is evidenced in the laws enacted by the union supporters in the state Legislature, which make it nearly impossible for district administrators to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms. Parental concerns over poor teacher quality and ineffective instruction fall on deaf ears.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw another period of rapid growth for Washington State as Microsoft and other technology leaders built their companies here. While the economy was strong, K-12 schools were slipping. Concern for our state’s future workforce should have been of critical importance.

Yet, as federal and state legislators passed regulations to centralize control over the public schools, negative byproducts resulted. For example, the added layers of bureaucracy drained financial resources away from the classroom. Today, Washington State employs more staff and administrators than teachers in its public school districts.

Consider that Seattle Public Schools employs more than 7,000 adults, but only 47 percent serve as classroom teachers. There is 1 adult employee for every 7 students, yet the student-teacher ratio is far more than that. The bloated bureaucracy drives up the cost to taxpayers, equating to $22,200 per student, without counting capital budget funding. Furthermore, despite the Seattle district’s recent 7.5 percent enrollment downturn, the district has not paused plans to hire additional employees, despite no positive correlation between more staff and student learning gains.

School closures and failure to reopen: Starting in March 2020, the covid-19 school shutdowns gave parents a window into their children’s public education through the remote school sessions. The lack of quality instruction raised significant concerns.

As the weeks turned to months and then to years, and public schools failed to reopen, parental dissatisfaction grew. While many parents were conditioned to remain silent in the face of public school problems, others vocally objected first to the failure of schools to reopen, then to the reduced instruction days and hours.

These parents, like parents in the 1940s, got involved. They rallied, signed petitions, pleaded and even begged Gov. Jay Inslee and state education leaders to reopen schools so their children could receive the promised public education their tax dollars funded. Irrefutably, parents knew that valuable time was lost in their children’s key developmental and formative learning years.

Parents’ efforts were ignored as more powerful voices from the unions and district bureaucracies kept public schools in the state closed longer than those in 46 other states. Meanwhile, private schools reopened much earlier.

As a result, Washington families have lost confidence in public schools and are looking outside of traditional public schools to educate their children. Among families with the ability to home-school or financial resources for private school tuition, many have left the public system. This fall, enrollment in the state’s traditional K-12 education system dropped by 37,797 students, from 1,101,758 students in 2019 to 1,063,961 students, a loss of nearly 3.5 percent; one of the highest student out-transfer rates in the nation. In January, Bellevue School District Board proposed consolidating at least seven elementary schools because of steep enrollment declines.

The academic impact: The National Assessment of Educational Progress exam scores released in October reveal that Washington State’s fourth-grade students placed the lowest since the testing started in 1994 for reading, and since 1996 for math. Washington State eighth-grade students scored lower in 2022 than in any other year since the test began in the mid-1990s.

More specifically, 65 percent of fourth-grade students and 72 percent of eighth-grade students failed to reach proficiency in math. In reading, 67 percent of fourth-grade students and 68 percent of eighth-grade students are below proficiency.

In addition to the long duration of closed schools, the traditional goal of education to provide academic instruction has been supplanted by the demands of “equity”; forcing uniform performance outcomes. This is troubling for multiple reasons: It lowers learning standards, removes personal responsibility, undermines student discipline, invites the adoption of misplaced curriculum and assessment priorities, and imposes race-based hiring practices in violation of civil rights law.

The current status quo of increased spending and lower student achievement is insufficient, and change is warranted.

A strategic path forward: Washington State can change course by returning to the standards of an era when parents had direct influence over their children’s education. This is the path forward to a hopeful future.

Implementing universal school choice would be a strategic step forward for Washington State. Funding students directly, rather than the system, would allow all parents to select the educational avenue that best serves their children. As Washington’s business and technology communities have experienced, free market principles drive progress in innovation, growth and excellence.

Empowering parents with a choice-based K-12 education landscape will spur competition, boost academic quality, raise cost-efficiency, and foster parental empowerment. In turn, a better-prepared workforce will result in significant societal and economic benefits for each Washingtonian as well as the state.

“Parents getting involved can have a very positive impact,” says Kemper Freeman Jr. “They are the greatest advocates for their kids’ education. For three generations of my family in Bellevue commercial real estate development, we’ve asked the community what they’d like to have. Asking customers (current and potential) what they want is essential. When it comes to K-12 education, parents must be viewed as customers and given choices in a competitive market of school providers.”

The dominant union monopoly in education is failing our students, communities and state.

Our K-12 education system can be Washington State’s biggest hindrance or its greatest asset. Our choice is clear. Let’s give our kids and our state the best future possible.