In Washington, a middle school needs to enroll at least 7,200 students before the state will provide enough money to hire a single nurse.
Elementary schools don’t get funding for a full-time social worker until they enroll more than 9,500 students. A high school would have to have nearly 86,000 to generate the revenue for a psychologist.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Kovit Virivong, 17. “Our funding system is not built for our current students.”
During a presentation in a Seattle University classroom last week, Kovit acknowledged the irony of his statement: Because he attends the private Northwest School on Capitol Hill, he doesn’t live the reality of Washington’s public-school finance formulas.
But he and 14 other high-school seniors spent part of their summer diving deep into the state’s labyrinthine K-12 budget and exploring how it drives inequities.
“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad,” Kovit said.
Of course, while no school has that many students in real life, that’s the equation the state created — so many district use local levies to make up the difference where they can.
Rainier Scholars, a nonprofit program based in Seattle, helps low-income students get into top schools and supports them from the fifth grade through college. And as part of a final leadership institute, the program introduces seniors like Kovit to school finance — a world typically filled with lawmakers, policy wonks and other adults who don’t often consult with students.
The latest such overhaul arrived in 2017, as lawmakers attempted to settle the landmark school-funding case known as McCleary. A Supreme Court ruling ordered the state to increase its investment in K-12 schools, fixing a budget gap that school districts filled with local property taxes.
Lawmakers eventually satisfied that order last year, but also approved sweeping changes to how the state divvied up the new money for schools.
“I had no idea we were going to learn all that,” said Angela Trần, who just graduated from Lakeside School.
Over the course of three days, Trần and her peers learned how school districts in wealthier neighborhoods can raise more money from local property-tax levies than their counterparts in low-income areas. They studied how the state sets specific staff-to-student ratios, which results in Washington’s largest school district, Seattle, only getting enough funding to pay for nine nurses to serve about 53,000 students at 102 schools.
For a final presentation, Trần’s group focused on the unintended consequences of a little-known formula that bases teacher salaries on regional housing prices.
“So teachers end up making so much more money in the exact same position just depending on where they teach,” said Trần, 18. “And districts with less money will just never be able to keep up. They’ll never be able to pay staff enough and that will draw less people.”
The students also spent a day balancing the budgets pulled from schools in affluent and low-income neighborhoods in the same district. That forced them to make hard decisions about whether to increase class sizes or sacrifice counselors at the low-income school, which typically get less money than wealthier campuses.
The Rainier Scholars staff threw students a curveball: How would they redistribute that limited pot of money if the low-income school had to absorb 100 refugee students in the middle of the year?
Trần, a wrestler, said the exercise helped her understand why she encountered such different quality of mat rooms at the high schools where she competed in Seattle.
“I remember the coach (at one school) told me don’t ever drink the water there,” she recalled. “This (exercise) was super eye opening.”
Organizers with Rainier Scholars said they hope the exercises help the students understand how decisions made in Olympia or district headquarters shape the schools they attend. And at least one senior, Ajala Wilson-Daraja, has already put what he learned to use.
He grew up in South and West Seattle, lives in Renton and attends private Overlake School in Redmond. On Thursday night, Wilson-Daraja, 17, explained why he took a long bus ride to City Hall in downtown Seattle to attend a forum where youth posed questions to candidates for the Seattle School Board, City Council, Port of Seattle commission and Metropolitan King County Council.
“It’s important to stay connected with my community, and I think I can bridge all these different communities together,” he said. “I feel like, if Seattle — if this is a place where we can fix the problems first, then maybe we could spread it across Washington.”