The needs of one Washington school illustrate why lawmakers must put a lot more money into public schools.
Cascade Middle School in Auburn has been labeled a failing school by the Washington Policy Center. Too few kids are passing statewide tests. The numbers aren’t improving. And the unexcused absence rate is high.
But Principal Isaiah Johnson says the school and its students aren’t failing. Washington’s education system is what needs to try harder. I agree.
His school has 720 students, 61 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Cascade has a lot of needs that its current budget can’t meet, even with a substantial local property tax levy. Immigrant kids just learning English need focused attention. The special-education program is underfunded. Homeless children and those dealing with trauma at home need more help from the most stable part of their lives, their school.
Johnson has a list he thinks would help Cascade Middle School’s students. This is not a wish list. It is a need list for a struggling school. Johnson is persuasive, and so is his school. The parents and kids at Cascade haven’t given up. The state Legislature should answer that hope by fully funding schools and giving all students the same opportunities that kids have in richer school districts.
Cascade’s list starts with counseling. Johnson estimates more than half the kids at Cascade Middle could benefit from mental-health counseling. The school has just two counselors.
The school doesn’t have someone to call parents when a student doesn’t show up for class. A parent outreach coordinator could help with that, plan family events and help parents who don’t speak English navigate the system, but the school can’t afford the position.
Cascade is working on improving school discipline, but Johnson wants to make sure those students who get suspended can use their time out of regular class to catch up on their work in a room on campus. That would take staff to supervise.
He doesn’t have enough academic help to tutor struggling students. He also doesn’t have money for the popular Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program that aims to close the achievement gap by helping middle-school students improve their study habits and prepare for college. Other districts can afford it.
All told, Johnson needs as many as a dozen more caring adults in his school, whose salaries and benefits could add up to $1 million. This is just back-of-the-napkin math, but it should give an idea of why teachers, administrators, parents and the Supreme Court agree: Washington needs to invest more money for schools.
Auburn Superintendent Alan Spicciati says Johnson’s list tells just part of the story. The district also has trouble keeping up with the rising costs of special education and spends about $8 million above what it gets from the state and federal governments. Local levy dollars make up the difference.
The district collects about $40 million a year in local property taxes. That’s about 21 percent of its budget and much of that is used for expenses the state Supreme Court says it shouldn’t be, including salaries for special education.
Spicciati wants all students to have an academic prekindergarten experience, another way to narrow the achievement gap. Only about a third do now. The district needs more elementary-school tutors for both reading and math. About 16 percent of students in the district are absent at least 10 percent of the year. Chronic absenteeism is closely associated with failure to graduate. The school district with nearly 16,000 students reported a four-year graduation rate of 76 percent at the end of the 2015-16 school year. The state average is 78 percent.
In a district where more than half the students are living in poverty, 12 percent are in special education and 16 percent are still learning English, I would say Auburn is beating the odds with its graduation rate. But if the goal is to graduate nearly every student with the tools he or she needs to go on to college or career training, Auburn and nearly every other school district in Washington is failing.
Actually, the Legislature is failing students by not amply funding public schools.
After listening to Spicciati and Johnson list all the ways more money could make a difference at Cascade, I asked the superintendent how the public can be sure the extra dollars would go to help struggling students.
I could tell he was offended and almost didn’t answer my question. But Spicciati and Johnson understand the difference between equity and equal. Equity means every kid, no matter his background or his ZIP code, gets the same chance at a great education. Equity doesn’t mean money is distributed equally to every kid and every school.
“We welcome transparency,” Spicciati said. “If we need to be more accountable, that’s a fair trade-off for fully funding education.”