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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

On Gregoire's Watch, Key Education Measures Didn't Budge Much

Office of the Governor

OLYMPIA, Wash. – One measure of success for governors is their ability to get better results out of schools. As Washington Governor Chris Gregoire prepares to leave office, the state’s high school graduation and dropout rates have improved, but not a lot. And there’s still a significant achievement gap between white and non-white students.

Three out of four Washington high school students graduated on-time last year. On the flip side, nearly one in six high schoolers dropped out. Go back to 2005 when Democrat Gregoire first took office and the numbers today are only slightly better.

Another common measure of how schools are doing is the achievement gap. Take 4th grade reading scores during Gregoire’s eight years in office. The gap between white and Hispanic students and white and black students actually grew larger. There is an asterisk, however. The test did change in that time.

“You can’t turn that around overnight,” the governor said on a recent episode of TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program. Gregoire also said to achieve big changes in education, you have to start at the beginning.

“You’re not going to change suddenly the outcomes of seniors in high school if you didn’t start in early childhood education.”

Gregoire didn’t always see eye-to-eye with state schools superintendent Randy Dorn. Even so, he still gives the outgoing two-term governor a “B” for education.

“If we were able to hold our own on graduation rates and achievement gap for that to happen in the toughest economic times, we’ve probably done as well as we could do as compared to other states,” Dorn says.

It wasn’t just the Great Recession that hit on Gregoire’s watch. So did a Supreme Court ruling that Washington is not living up to its constitutional duty to adequately fund public schools. The high court recently weighed in again to say the state is not moving fast enough to remedy the situation.

Still, Gregoire believes she has helped set in motion a new focus on early learning, all day kindergarten and a seamless pre-k through college approach. Education reform advocate Lisa Macfarlane calls that legacy “spot on.”

But the longtime Gregoire backer adds the governor ran into political roadblocks along the way.

“I think there’s a long line of Washington governors that are frustrated they couldn’t do more and I think she’s in that list," Macfarlane says. "And it doesn’t mean she can’t be proud of what she did accomplish.”

As Gregoire hands off to Governor-elect Jay Inslee the challenge remains: how does the state ensure the money it spends translates into better grades for Washington schools.

On the Web:

Governor Gregoire's education priorities (Office of the Governor)

Superintendent Randy Dorn's 2013 agenda (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction)


Gregoire Education Report Card

Per Pupil Expenditures

  • 2005-06: $8,189.27
  • 2010-11: $9,694.06 (not adjusted for inflation)

On-time graduation rate

  • 2005: 74.3 percent
  • 2011: 75 percent

High school dropout rate

  • 2005: 19.1 percent
  • 2010: 17.6% percent (most recent year available)

Achievement gap - 4th grade reading test scores*

Black students compared to white

  • 2005-06: -16.8
  • 2011-12: -21.1

Hispanic students compared to white

  • 2005-06: -19.2
  • 2011-12: -21.2

*Test changed from WASL to Measurements of Student Progress
Source: OSPI - Office of Superitendent of Public Instruction


Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."