As negotiations in Olympia crawl into a second session, it’s unclear whether Washington state lawmakers will have the political will to include wholesale reform in a McCleary fix — or if they’ll just try to get home as soon as possible.

Share story

The eight lawmakers who have spent nearly three months trying to hammer out a McCleary deal are not sharing much about their talks in public.

So far they’ve reported making progress on how to fix Washington’s broken school-finance system and fully fund basic education, as required under the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision in 2012. But few details have escaped the negotiating room about how seriously they’re considering some — or any — of the many ideas floated by Republicans, Democrats and a slew of interest groups.

Many of those proposals would do more than just add new money to public education but also make big changes to the status quo.

Republicans, for example, want to limit how much school districts spend on salaries and make it easier to fire teachers.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Democrats want smaller class sizes and a new capital-gains tax.

Interest groups want more financial transparency in school spending and some restrictions on teacher contracts.

Which ones are central to the debate going on behind closed doors? Which ones are more of a negotiating tactic?

No one is saying much. But it’s clear that many influential groups are lobbying for one big change: Doing away with an obscure formula, called staff mix, that’s at the center of how much state money each district receives.

“There are a lot of ways to fix inequity in the system,” said Shawn Lewis, government relations director for the Washington Education Association, the union that represents most state teachers.

“We have a lot of things that would help turn the dial in the right way, and everybody seems to be focusing on staff mix. I’m just not sure why.”

Complex formula

Staff mix is a five-digit numeral, baked into school-finance formulas, that reflects the average experience and education level of teachers in any given district. A place with more seasoned educators has a higher staff mix, and the higher the staff mix, the more money the state forks over per teacher.

The idea makes sense: More experienced teachers command higher salaries, which triggers more money from the state to cover their pay.

But opponents consider it one of the largest drivers of inequity in Washington schools — if not the largest.

Only six other states use a formula like staff mix, and those who are pushing to eliminate it here see it as part of a larger effort to completely overhaul the state’s funding system.

Groups such as the Washington Roundtable, a business think tank, and the Campaign for Student Success, a collection of advocacy groups, want the state to scrap its existing system and replace it with a per-pupil funding model that provides money to districts based on the needs of their students.

Currently, districts that enroll more at-risk students typically have a harder time recruiting and retaining experienced educators, meaning they have a lower staff mix and receive less funding. And that lower staff mix ripples through other programs meant to support students living in poverty or who have special needs.

“Poorer districts tend to have more students with greater disadvantages, such as poverty and English language learners, and thus are in greater need of additional support,” said Washington Roundtable President Steve Mullin.

“The staff-mix factor actually directs these resources away from the districts that most need it.”

Strong backing

But the staff mix has plenty of support. It’s backed by the state’s powerful teachers union, with its 92,000 members, and a slate of education associations representing school administrators, business officers, directors and principals.

“This is one of the few issues that we’re all standing side by side, saying the exact same thing,” said Lewis, of the teachers union.

In supporters’ view, the staff mix encourages schools to hire the best candidates for open classroom positions. Moving away from that formula, they warn, would create perverse incentives to rely on cheaper, less-qualified educators.

Brett Blechschmidt, chief fiscal officer for Vancouver Public Schools, worries the loss of staff mix would force districts to focus on the cost of each teacher, rather than their qualifications.

“We should have candidates viewed strictly based on their contributions to our children’s need, not necessarily their relative cost,” he said.

Chris Reykdal, the state schools chief, backs keeping staff mix, too.

Last week, Reykdal said eliminating staff mix as well as a statewide salary schedule for teachers (which Republicans have also proposed) would cause chaos.

“You’ve created an environment where you’ve blown up the salary schedule, you don’t send the money commensurate with the experience of teachers you have and then you open 295 collective-bargaining agreements,” he said. “It’s a guaranteed free-for-all.”

Outside interest, too

The debate even has drawn attention from outside of Washington.

“If you care about equity, the staff-mix factor is not a good thing,” said Zahava Stadler, policy and research manager with EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on school-funding issues.

She noted that, thanks to staff mix, districts that already have an easier time attracting top talent receive even more money from the state to pay teachers.

“It rewards money with money,” Stadler said.

“Washington’s system is unusual in a number of ways,” she added. “But I’ll say that Washington’s use of the staff-mix factor really puts it in the minority.”

Earlier this year, both House Democrats and Senate Republicans included the end of staff mix in their proposed McCleary fixes.

But it’s unclear whether that’s still under consideration. With the threat of a government shutdown looming if the Legislature doesn’t pass a state budget by June 30, lawmakers may not have the political will to tackle such a complex problem.

Few experts wanted to place odds on whether staff mix will survive.

“I tend to err on the side of no-big-change-will-happen, but who knows?” said Jake Vela, policy director for the League of Education Voters, which is part of the coalition that opposes the staff mix.

“I think of the priority issues for the negotiators,” he added. Staff mix “might not be as high on the list as some other issues. I don’t think they’re necessarily going to die on their swords for this.”

Other strategies

Eliminating staff mix isn’t the only way to achieve equity.

Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction, last week pitched a funding compromise that would preserve much of the existing school-finance structure, including staff mix, but would also give districts more resources for low-income, bilingual and gifted students.

The Washington Association of School Administrators has proposed providing extra money to districts that have a lot of teacher turnover, which lowers their staff mix.

Blechschmidt, with Vancouver Schools, also suggested the Legislature could consider stipends or salary premiums based on classroom-vacancy rates, teacher turnover and other school data.

Whatever lawmakers do, Reykdal urged them not to act rashly.

On Wednesday, when he rolled out his long-term plan for education in Washington, he reminded them that this year, the state Supreme Court only requires them to fully fund public schools.

“I understand and I know the need for long-term reform,” Reykdal said. “But it’s not actually part of the McCleary solution … You have next year and you have the next year to worry about the things you want to fix.”

But that’s not likely to stop the lobbying, especially from those who think change needs to happen this year if it’s going to happen at all.

“This is a great opportunity to really make positive, long-term changes to the system and really support students,” Vela said. “This is the best chance we’ve had to do this in a long time, and maybe the last one we have for a while.”