After years of working on K-12 funding deficiencies, some legislators are claiming “McCleary fatigue.” In his proposed budget, Gov. Jay Inslee declared victory, writing the state had “largely tackled the state’s school-funding problem.”
State lawmakers must resolve continued deficiencies in public education funding during this legislative session, which begins Monday. Most important, they should — finally — honor their legal and ethical obligation to fully fund special education. This is something they have repeatedly failed to do.
The additional $155.2 million earmarked for special education in the 2019-21 operating budget didn’t go far enough. As The Seattle Times Education Lab reported last week, it leaves a gap of nearly $71 million to meet current needs. That gap should be filled first.
While they are at it, legislators should also jettison the arbitrary cap which limits special education funding to no more than 13.5% of a school district’s students, regardless of need. An Office of Program Research presentation to the House Appropriations Committee last November reported there are approximately 3,800 special-education students above the enrollment cap in the state. That number is expected to grow.
The state Constitution is clear: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.” It does not say it is OK to shortchange students with learning or other disabilities. It is past time to get this done.
Other substantive shortcomings in public education will require more thought and deliberation, but that does not preclude lawmakers from making meaningful progress during this short session. Two such issues immediately come to mind.
The prototypical school funding model needs an overhaul. Current staff-to-student ratios for critical staff members such as nurses, social workers, psychologists and counselors are set far too low, leaving it up to local districts whether to fund the difference — or do without.
Last session, lawmakers allocated an additional $1.8 million in the 2019-21 operating budget to fund 20 new elementary and middle school guidance counselors for districts with more acute needs. But they failed to pass a bill that would adjust the prototypical school model to reflect adequate staffing. On Dec. 1, they received recommendations for aligning the model with real-world needs. They should close the gap.
Another area directly tied to Washington’s public school success is early-childhood education. According to OSPI statistics, only 45.7% of Washington’s students were kindergarten-ready during the 2018-19 school year — coming to school with sufficient social-emotional, physical, language, cognitive, literacy and math skills to succeed.
Catching up on those skills presents a big hurdle for little students and the schools that serve them. Affordable and accessible early-childhood care can be instrumental in ensuring more 5-year-olds enter school ready to learn.
The governor has proposed a $2.2 million appropriation for services to preschoolers with special needs, and would expand subsidized child care to homeless families and teen parents. House and Senate Democrats intend to file much more ambitious proposals this week.
The discussion is worth having — even in a short session.
Nobody should be claiming fatigue. There is still much work to do to keep from shortchanging Washington’s children.