A core principle of the McCleary decision is that the state must fund districts for the actual cost of providing basic education.

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FIVE years after the state Supreme Court issued its ruling in the McCleary case, we face the 2018 deadline they established for ample school funding. In that decision, the court upheld all elements of the lower court’s ruling with one exception. The Superior Court ordered the Legislature to first determine the actual cost of basic education and then provide that funding. However, the Supreme Court didn’t feel more study was needed since the Basic Education Finance Task Force had conducted a thorough review leading in 2009 to a proposed new allocation model which was adopted by the Legislature.

Given this looming deadline, one might assume this legislative session would be all about providing funding for the new allocation model, but significant changes are being considered. One major change proposed by the House and Senate is elimination of the “Salary Allocation Model” or SAM, which has worked well for decades. That system has two key elements:

• A salary schedule with the level of training on one axis with years of experience on the other.

• A staff-mix factor that represents a district’s average teacher placement on that grid.

The state salary schedule includes two formats. One includes the salary for each cell in the grid, and the other provides a factor representing the numerical difference between each cell. A new teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience, for example, is assigned a factor of 1.000. An experienced teacher at the highest salary has a factor of 1.885. The state allocation system averages that factor for all teachers within a district to derive its staff-mix factor. The salary corresponding to that staff mix factor is multiplied by the number of allocated teachers to calculate the state’s salary payment to the district.

Elimination of the current SAM is widely opposed by the state’s educational leaders. In the short term, the change would create statewide bargaining chaos since the state salary schedule is part of most district’s collective bargaining agreements. The change would create even more significant long-term impacts. With our current system, hiring decisions are based on selecting the best possible candidate. If the allocation is based on a state average salary, hiring will be more driven by budget considerations.

In a May 28 Seattle Times’ news story [“In fight over Washington’s school funding, some want big change in who gets how much — but is it too late?”], staff reporter Neal Morton provided a great overview of the concerns that led to this proposed change, as well as the opposition to it. The primary criticism of the current model is a perception that it’s unfair to high poverty districts since they tend to receive a lower salary allocation than more affluent school districts. That difference reflects the recruitment and retention challenge in these districts resulting in staff lower on the salary scale. That’s an important problem for legislators to solve, but the solution shouldn’t be funded on the backs of other districts. That approach dismantles an important element of the current system that meets the court’s directive.

A core principle of the McCleary decision is that the state must fund districts for the actual cost of providing basic education. One only need look at the first-year implications of this proposed change to see a violation of that principle. By replacing the current SAM with a state average salary allocation, half of the districts in the state would lose funding — and for many, it would be a significant loss. That takes them farther from the state funding their actual costs.

As House and Senate negotiators work to iron out the differences in their plans, we encourage adherence to the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After all, the only thing the court is requiring is for the state to amply fund our schools. Most of the other proposed changes represent a distraction from that prime directive, and in the case of salary allocation, they do considerable harm.