Don’t let DeVos distract us from the work ahead in Washington state

DESPITE the best efforts of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and others, the United States now has a dubiously qualified education secretary setting the federal government’s agenda for public schools.

The U.S. Senate’s narrow confirmation of Betsy DeVos Tuesday — with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a tie — is an excellent time to remember that Washington parents still have a say about how their children are educated. That’s true because most of the decisions about public schools in this state happen on local school boards and in the Legislature.

The real action right now is in the state Legislature. Lawmakers are charged with fixing the way the state pays for public schools. They will also decide how that money is spent. Lawmakers must put politics aside, ignore what is happening in the other Washington and focus on Washington schools.

Here are the priorities: higher graduation rates; readiness for college or career training for those students who graduate; access to high quality preschool for low-income children so they are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten; and access to affordable higher education.

For years before the Washington Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, parents, teachers, administrators and even children knew the quality of a public-school diploma depended a lot on the ZIP code in which a child lived. If local voters enthusiastically passed generous school property tax levies, then schools were likely to be above average. The opposite could be said for schools in property tax-poor districts.

This is the year to fix that.

Too bad Congress has hired someone without education-management experience to be the U.S. education secretary. DeVos has spent her adult life working instead in Republican party politics, advocating for charter schools and vouchers in her home state of Michigan, and serving as chairwoman of an investment management company. She did not attend public schools and sent her children to private school.

She would advocate to upend the federal government’s approach to funding public education along with education regulations and the way the government keeps tabs on public schools.

Sen. Murray valiantly sounded the alarm about DeVos and rallied other senators and the public to oppose her confirmation. But, sadly, it was not enough.

Failures in the other Washington to make public schools better shouldn’t stop this Washington from meeting its education goals.