No school district in Washington is getting the funding it needs from Olympia, but wealthier communities have recourse through local levy funding.
BUDGETS are moral documents that send messages about what we value. Right now the collective message we’re sending as a state is that we don’t value our students in low-income urban and rural communities. While much of Washington state, especially along the Interstate 5 and 405 corridors, is thriving, there are concerning problems bubbling below the surface for hundreds of our state’s schools.
On one hand, Washington enjoys one of the most dynamic economies in the nation. We are the birthplace of Boeing and UPS. We are the home of Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco, Nordstrom and Amazon. We are a prosperous state, with rising real estate values and a growing job market.
That is our current reality, but we’re not guaranteed this same future.
On the other hand, we have an ongoing, near decadelong fight over adequate school funding. From my travels and conversations around the state as 2016 Teacher of the Year, I know that morale in the teaching profession is low, particularly in our highest-need schools. We have a teacher shortage in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) positions and for nearly all classes in rural communities across the state. We aren’t producing enough college graduates: Washington state ranks second in the nation in the net number of trained workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher who arrive from out-of-state.
When it comes to student achievement, we’re in the middle of the pack nationally, between Nebraska and Kansas, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Rather than blaming teachers for the state of affairs, as many are wont to do, I believe there are budgetary and resource causes for much of this. Our highest-need schools lack necessary resources to do the job they’re asked of. Consider that many schools have higher numbers of special-education students, higher numbers of English Language Learners, more students experiencing housing instability, more students experiencing food insecurity, more students with chronic health issues, and more students who’ve experienced early-life trauma, more low-income students requiring more services — these schools all require more resources. But the current state-funding system delivers the opposite.
No school district in Washington is getting the funding it needs from Olympia, but wealthier communities have recourse through local levy funding. Families in more affluent communities raise local revenue by taxing themselves, which lower-income communities simply can’t afford to.
This is not theoretical. This calculus is very personal to me and the work we have done over the last decade at Lincoln High in Tacoma. We have an extended school day where students get additional academic support, along with college, life and career advising. We have a dedicated staff member working to connect students whose lives are in flux to services and housing. Six times a year, we have Scholar Saturdays where hundreds of students come to school to get caught up, receive extra help and work to raise their grades.
Tacoma Public Schools funds the cost of Advanced Placement exams for all students, removing a key barrier that prevents many low-income students from taking the most advanced coursework. As a result, over the last decade our graduation rate has soared above 80 percent and we have created a strong postsecondary culture. Going to college or vocational school has become the expectation in what was for most of my life the city’s lowest-performing high school. But all of this took money — money that hundreds of schools and districts lack and money the state is constitutionally obligated to provide but does not.
If my high school, surrounded by low-income households, was part of a low-income, single high school district, as is the case in Tukwila and many rural parts of the state, local property taxes would need to be raised to untenable levels to provide for the programmatic needs of my students. We simply could not afford to do what we do and my entire community would be worse off.
If we are to maintain our current prosperity as a state, we must make investments in our shared future. Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2017-2019 budget asks persons and businesses that have benefitted from our economy to help out, including an increase of the business-and-occupation tax on services provided by accountants, attorneys, real estate agents and others, and a tax on capital-gains earnings above $25,000 for individuals. His proposal provides a property-tax cut for the vast majority of Washington homeowners. This would give school districts around the state the funds needed to replicate the successes and interventions we’ve had done at Lincoln High.
After 10 years of the McCleary lawsuit, the stakes for our state, our schools and our most vulnerable students are too high.
Members of the Legislature don’t have to love the governor’s budget — I myself have been critical of him in the past — but people who disagree with his budget must offer meaningful alternatives and not just say “no.” We need for them to offer something besides partisan opposition and budget gimmickry.