Before the Legislature commits to a larger raise for teachers, it needs to fix a broken school-financing system.
FOR the last six years, the state’s share of teachers’ pay effectively has been frozen. In fact, it took a cut, albeit a smaller one than other state workers took.
However, focusing on the state contribution gives a distorted picture of teacher pay and is not justification for the supersized, permanent cost-of-living raise the Democrat-led House has proposed for the 2015-17 budget.
In fact, statewide average teacher salaries rose more than 5 percent since 2009, according to a nonpartisan legislative analysis. The average pay for a Bellevue teacher rose 11 percent. In Everett, the jump was 13 percent.
The reason for that juxtaposition — a frozen state pay scale versus rising take-home pay for most teachers — is at the heart of why the state Supreme Court has held the state in contempt. The state’s broken education-finance system foists about 30 percent of teacher pay onto local funding sources. Primarily, that comes from local voter-approved levies. And local teacher unions have successfully bargained for locally financed raises.
How much more of teacher salaries the state should pay has become a friction point in state-budget negotiations, which have dragged on through two overtime special sessions. Republicans and Democrats have agreed to give teachers 1.8 percent and 1.2 percent raises in the next two years, as mandated by the often-ignored Initiative 732.
But Democrats still want an additional raise, above the I-732 level. On Thursday, the Senate negotiators acquiesced, but offered a smart proposal that would make the extra raise a one-year bonus. That would give the Legislature breathing room to deal with the larger court-mandated challenge: equitable funding, including pay, around the state. The Supreme Court, in its landmark 2012 McCleary decision, demanded a more equitable school-financing system than the current one. Funding varies widely among property-rich and -poor districts statewide.
That disparity is crystal clear in the teacher pay data. While the average teacher pay rose 13 percent in Bellevue, it increased 1 percent in property-poor Yakima. Cle Elum teachers are taking home only $92 more than in 2009. The average pay has actually fallen in some small Eastern Washington districts, including Bridgeport, Napavine and Prosser.
A comprehensive fix to this serious problem has been crafted by a bipartisan group of senators. But disagreements over how to fund this $3.5 billion reform have shoved this important proposal aside in the waning days of the session.
That’s a mistake. After the Supreme Court gets its requested report next month, it potentially could put its judicial foot down over the lack of progress. Gov. Jay Inslee, who has been AWOL on the school-finance issue, might have to call lawmakers back to yet another special session. Regardless, work on the bipartisan Senate plan should continue, quickly.
The lack of progress on school-financing reform should put on hold the Democrats’ larger, permanent raise for teachers, pending a complete plan to fix the district-by-district inequities in teacher pay. Among the smart solutions is a regional salary scale, which recognizes the chasm between the cost of a home in Seattle and one in Omak. Another smart solution is statewide collective bargaining for teachers — similar to what is currently done for other state workers — rather than district-by-district deals that perpetuate the problem.
Teachers will be getting a cost-of-living raise this year. But before the Legislature commits to a larger raise, it needs to fix a broken school-financing system. Glaring inequities in school funding trickle down to the classroom, and that’s glaringly unfair to students.