What's Wrong with Seattle Public Schools?

What's wrong with Seattle Public Schools? Mayor Greg Nickels answered that question and many others on KUOW's Weekday today. Below is a transcript of the conversation.


Reynolds: What’s wrong with Seattle’s schools?

Nickels: I think that there’s been a real issue of accountability and confidence in the public schools. For an awful lot of parents, as their kids approach school age, their default is to move out of the city in order to send their kids to suburban schools or, if they can afford it, to send their kids to private schools. We have the highest per capita private school attendance in the country.

And I think that the Seattle Public Schools ought to be, if not the first choice, at least in contention with those, and that we keep more of those kids in our city and in our public schools. And the confidence is not there amongst a lot of people that they are going to get a good education by going to the public schools, and we need to change that perception.

Reynolds: There were rumors that you were putting up Norm Rice as the interim head of the public schools as superintendent. Is that true?

Nickels: Three years ago the school district went through a failed search for a new superintendent. They spent a lot of money and a lot of time, and at the end of the day they turned to the fellow who had inherited the job on an interim basis and said ‘Would you do this for the next three years.’ I think that nothing has really changed to think that they are going to be more successful in a national search over the next eight or nine months.

Secondly, the manner in which Raj Manhas offered his resignation, which was following a vote by the Board against his proposal on school closures, I think says that he’s going to be less effective because he doesn’t have the confidence and the support of the Board. And therefore, bringing in someone of stature and maturity, like Mayor Rice, to come in, bring the community together in a summit, which he did 16 years ago very successfully, led to a lot of good progress in the schools that we now have seen, I think, pretty much dissipate, I think that would be the right way to go.

Then in two or three years, you have that plan, the community is united, the Board is united, I think your chances of hiring the best superintendent in the country would be a lot higher.

Reynolds: The Board is united... The Seattle Times called for the Board to step down, except for two members that they thought should stay on there. What do you think of that?

Nickels: Well I have not called for the Board to resign. I have asked them to consider bringing former Mayor Rice in to restore confidence and stability, bring the community together through an education summit. If they consider that and they move forward in that direction, I will support them. If they don’t, I’ve got real concerns about the next eight or nine months’ drift because we have a lame duck superintendent who doesn’t have the Board support and, very likely at the end of it, a search that doesn’t bring forward a candidate that’s going to get a consensus approval.

Reynolds: So the Mayor, of course, doesn’t run the Seattle schools.

Nickels: No, but I’ve got a big stake in the success of the schools. All of the things we are doing in this city really depend on a fine school system to kind of bring it all together.

Reynolds: So if that drift persists, what’s your stick over the next few months?

Nickels: Well, that’s a good question, Steve. I very much hope, and I’ve called on the Board members, to consider this. I hope they will do that. I hope they will do the right thing in that regard and that we will be able to move forward as a united community.

Reynolds: It’s difficult to have a conference and bring all the stakeholders together when there is such a divisive attitude...

Nickels: There really is. Which is why I think someone of the stature of former Mayor Rice, and I can’t think of a lot of other people who could do this, to come in and bring those divided parts of the community and of the Board together, I think it’s a unique opportunity.

Reynolds: Have you heard anything from him or from the people you are talking to that that may happen?

Nickels: I’ve had many conversations. I’m not going to speculate on the success of the effort ultimately.

Reynolds: Once again…I’ll let you go on that… (laughter)…Once again, the legislature is of course supposed to fully fund education. There is going to be pressure again on the legislature. What is Seattle going to do to get the Governor and others to maybe look at some of those dollars going to fully fund education?

Nickels: Well that’s another reason why I think it’s important for Seattle to have its act together is, I think, that for a lot of legislators, they are going to look at the Seattle district and point to it and say ‘You know what? Until that happens, we’re not going to put any more money into this.’

Reynolds: It’s an excuse for them, then, in that case.

Nickels: Yeah, exactly. So that’s why I think it’s important. Plus in February, we have two very large levies for the school district up and we have to get those passed. So I think it’s very important that we focus on this leadership issue, restore public confidence, and then we can move forward with the legislature. The Governor’s been very supportive of additional funding for education, but we need to do our part.

Reynolds: It’s difficult to get those levies passed when people feel like the Board...

Nickels: It’s tough. I’ve signed on to be a co-chair of the levy campaign. It’s very important. I don’t think the voters will take this out on the kids, but it’s sure a lot easier if everybody is singing from the same page.


Charlie Mas said…
Here's what I believe is wrong with Seattle Public Schools:

The District is structurally and culturally incapable of responding to the needs of the community it purportedly serves.
Beth Bakeman said…
I think I've heard you say that before, Charlie. :-)

So if that is the problem, what is the solution?
Charlie Mas said…
The solution is a culture change in Seattle Public Schools - the culture change that Raj Manhas promised us three years ago - to a District that is open, honest, transparent, accountable and engaged.

The solution is a Board that sets the expectation that all District operations will show these characteristics and a Superintendent who shares those values and expectations.

The solution is a change in the District's processes that involves the communitiy early in every decision - at the "it appears we have a problem" stage rather than the "here is our solution" stage. There must be a point in every one of the District's decision processes when someone asks "What does the community want?" and gives that factor the appropriate weighting.

The solution is real dialog between the public and District - at the Board level, at the Central Staff level, and at the building level.

The solution is for the District to stop acting like a top-down authoritarian juggernaut bureaucracy and to start acting like human beings.

The solution is to make the District care about what people want and to make the District accountable to the public.

The District is a public institution and therefore must respond to the public's demands. I'm not talking about mob rule. The District is also an educational institution, so they should be able to educate the public to understand the constraints on their actions and the benefits of some choices over others.

These are the reforms that will restore the public's confidence and faith in the District. These are the reforms that will improve academic opportunities for students. These are the reforms that will increase family involvement in children's educations. These are the reforms that will boost academic achievement. These are the reforms that will attract students to the schools. These are the reforms that will foster innovation. These are the reforms that will attract funding from the state and philanthropists. These are the reforms that will bring us peace, prosperity, and a cure for athlete's foot.

No, of course this won't fix everything, but it is the primary change the District needs to make, it is the change that the Board promised but has so far failed to deliver. It is the change that the Suiperintendent promised and failed to deliver. It is the change that we need.
Charlie Mas said…
I think it is ironic that Mayor Nickels should be the co-chair of the levy campaign when he co-wrote the voter's guide Statement Against I-88 saying that if Seattle raises money for our schools it sends the wrong message to Olympia.

Here is a direct quote:

"We all care about education, but it is the state’s job to fund it, according to the State Constitution. This initiative asks Seattle homeowners to pay more, instead of asking the state to fulfill its duty. Governor Gregoire’s state task force,
Washington Learns, is about to make recommendations on education funding across the state. Voting for this initiative will send a message to the state that we don’t need more money and will hurt our chances of getting more."

How is this any less true for the levy than it was for I-88?
Anonymous said…
Good point, Charlie. I would be very sad if the operating levy didn't pass as it represents 23% of the district's budget. But how did we get to a place where we have to beg for public for so much money? So yes, how is this different from asking for money via I-88?

I am going to write a separate blog about the capital bond measure (and it's a bond measure this time, not a levy) because I am against it.
Anonymous said…
Our mayor states:

“We have the highest per capita private school attendance in the country.”

Is he aware that Bellevue has the highest per capita private school attendance in the whole county?

Seattle’s market share of 77% compares with Bellevue’s market share of 76%. Meanwhile Highline’s market share is 86%.

Source: see page 36 of

I think that beating the mantra “highest per capita private school attendance in the country” is meant to simplistically imply that parents are fleeing the Seattle schools because they are failing miserably (rather than acknowledging many contributing factors in the private vs public and urban vs suburban school decisions such as wealth, class-ism, elitism, religion, fear, racism, politics, hype, ignorance, school and class sizes, the college screening industry, and on and on).

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