Curious about how your children’s school district fared under Washington state’s new K-12 budget?
There’s a map for that.
Policy analysts at the League of Education Voters, a nonpartisan advocacy group, spent the past few months trying to figure out exactly how state lawmakers this year tinkered with school-funding formulas and how those changes will play out for individual school districts. That’s not an easy task, as the Washington Legislature unveiled its 2019-21 operating budget the day before approving it and ending their business for the year.
Included in that $52.4 billion spending plan: About $4 billion to continue paying for an overhaul of the state’s K-12 finance rules, which lawmakers passed in 2017 and 2018 as part of the long-running McCleary school-funding case. But the League of Education Voters found that all that money didn’t necessarily trickle down to school districts enrolling some of the most disadvantaged students.
The 2017 overhaul left many school districts scrambling to make sense of their financial footing, and nearly two-thirds ultimately projected years of budget shortfalls and staff layoffs. Lawmakers attempted to address some of their concerns during their 2019 session, which ended in April. And on Wednesday, the League of Education Voters released a set of maps that detail how the recent tweaks will play out in each of Washington’s 295 school districts.
We spoke to Julia Warth, director of policy and research for the organization, and Federal Way Public Schools about what the new analysis means for the 2019-20 school year.
What the data tell us
The League of Education Voters focused its analysis on how much money school districts can collect from their local property-tax levies to pad state revenues.
In 2017, lawmakers set a two-tiered cap on those local levies to offset an increase in the statewide property-tax rate to pay for the education budget. That in large part prompted the predictions of financial doom-and-gloom from school districts, so lawmakers this year raised the levy lids slightly to offer some relief.
Still, the new analysis suggests many districts — especially those that enroll higher shares of students with disabilities and children from low-income families — may struggle to balance the cut in their local tax collections.
“We have a funding system that still doesn’t target all of the resources in the system based on student and community need,” Warth said Wednesday during a presentation of the maps.
“The state has infused a significant amount of additional state resources into the [system] but not significant change in how that money is distributed,” she added.
As an example, Warth pointed to the Marysville and Stanwood-Camano school districts in Snohomish County. The student-poverty rate in Marysville is close to twice that of Stanwood-Camano, and Marysville enrolls a higher share of students with disabilities than state funding covers. But both will collect nearly the same amount of money per student — $14,700 in Marysville, and $14,600 in Stanwood-Camano — from their combined state and local revenues.
“Even if the state funding is more for Marysville, the [cut in] local funding winds up basically negating that,” Warth said.
What the data doesn’t tell us
Most notably, the analysis doesn’t reveal whether the budget shortfalls and staffing reductions that districts forecast earlier this year will come to pass.
“It … remains to be seen if these changes will actually prevent the budget crises that were projected by districts,” Warth said.
Under state law, local school boards must adopt their budgets for the next academic year by August, so we should know soon. The Seattle School Board already approved its 2019-20 budget, which included some staffing cuts but none as deep as district officials initially predicted.
In Federal Way Public Schools, where more than half of students live in poverty, the changes in this year’s legislative session would allow the district to raise the local levy rate its voters approved last year. But in an emailed statement, the district said it “is committed to maintaining current tax rates for our community and has no interest in asking local taxpayers for more money.”
The district added that it will make cuts over the next two years, with the bulk coming from central office and attrition.
What questions remain
Lawmakers — after years of debating the K-12 budget — may have “school-funding fatigue,” Warth noted in her presentation.
That makes it difficult to know whether they will have any appetite to continue making changes to close the inequities in their K-12 formulas.
Still, Warth said her group plans to continue to press on the issue during next year’s legislative session: “Our plans for advocacy will really be focused most likely on this issue of the continued disparity between districts.”
The Federal Way district similarly indicated it will push lawmakers to fix the inequities that remain. It previously advocated for additional money for school safety and security and more support for districts in less affluent areas.
The district noted it only gets enough money from the state to hire about 4 security officers and 3 ½ nurses to cover 39 schools.