Unlike much of the funding that goes out to districts for various programs but allows districts some flexibility on how it is spent, beginning in the 2019-20 school year money for K-3 class size reduction actually needs to be used the way the Legislature intended.

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Even though the Legislature appropriated another $1 billion this year for K-12 pay raises, there is reason to wonder what some school districts will do with the dollars allocated by the state for other educational improvements not related to staff salaries. Between state law and recent decisions, how will they address demands by union negotiators to direct all available funds toward additional compensation? I hope their answer is to use the money as lawmakers intended.

A prime example involves teacher-student ratios in kindergarten through third grade. Research shows that lower class sizes in early grades lead to improved educational outcomes. As part of its comprehensive 2017 solution to provide a high-quality and equitable basic education, the Legislature put more than $500 million toward limiting K-3 class sizes to 17 students.

However, due to some concerns that local schools lacked adequate classroom space to implement the policy, state lawmakers granted a one-year reprieve, permitting districts to use these funds for other purposes in the 2017-18 school year. While it wasn’t optimal, it was meant to be a one-time delay and had broad bipartisan support as a result of listening to the legitimate concerns of school districts.

That was 2017. The 2018 Legislature pushed through another one-year delay on lowering class sizes, while continuing to provide the related funding. Consequently, while some school districts have continued investing the money toward achieving the 17-student goal, others have used the delay to pay for other needs.

Unlike much of the funding that goes out to districts for various programs but allows districts some flexibility on how it is spent, beginning in the 2019-20 school year money for K-3 class size reduction actually needs to be used the way the Legislature intended. This is especially important in districts where bargaining teams renegotiating local employment contracts are seeking all unappropriated money to increase teacher pay.

There are three distinctly different, but equally important reasons districts should not agree to spend program-specific funding on additional compensation.

First and foremost, research shows lower class sizes in early grades improve student achievement. This is especially true for students from low-income and minority families, where early success is critically important toward closing Washington’s persistent opportunity gap. Diverting that funding would harm all students where class-size targets are not met and disproportionately affect children who already are at a higher risk of not graduating.

Spending the money that is supposed to be for class size-reduction to increase teacher salaries would also present compounding financial challenges for local school budgets in future years. Districts that fail to meet class-size targets in the 2019-20 school year will lose the extra funding. That would not only reduce their ability to lower class sizes but also remove a funding source if it is unwisely being committed for ongoing and escalating costs like salaries.

Finally, such bait-and-switch tactics will add to the confusion and frustration felt by parents and erode the public’s trust in government to deliver on claims of improving education for all children and spending money effectively. When parents are told the state is providing money so their second-grader will have only 16 classmates, yet the first day see 30 pupils, they have less reason to believe their elected leaders. That won’t help the Legislature or individual school districts earn the public’s support as we continue looking to improve our education system by applying emerging research and innovation best practices to basic education.

Funding for new programs or operating costs always has to come from somewhere. Given how much other funding is already available for raises and how the Legislature, school districts and educator unions have expressed an interest in reducing K-3 class sizes, diverting money from that priority should not and cannot be part of new pay raises.