We are on track for school budget cuts that disproportionately hurt students of color and those who are living in poverty — the very students who are negatively impacted by the opportunity gap we are all striving to close.
Next month, several school districts across Washington state will ask voters to consider funding local levies for public education. As superintendents collectively representing more than 100,000 students and their families across the Puget Sound region, we feel it is imperative to provide additional context on the financial realities school districts are facing.
Washington state has dramatically changed its education funding model, known as the “McCleary fix.” The state Legislature has made great strides in increasing funding for public education, for which we are thankful. Part of the fix was to shift a large chunk of property-tax dollars (dollars that used to be under local control) to the state, redistributing them to districts across Washington. Unfortunately, the result was that some districts received more money than others, and many districts now face budget shortfalls.
Much of the new state money was committed to increasing teachers’ salaries, which is the right thing to do — and critical for attracting and retaining high quality educators and support staff. However, the property-tax shift leaves districts without funding for other critical needs.
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There is no doubt that the intention of this new funding model was good, but it does not cover the full cost of education. To be clear: K-12 education is not fully funded by the state. Our districts still need to ask voters to consider local levies.
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Local levies fund salaries for teachers, nurses, counselors and custodians not covered by the state’s basic-education formula. Local levies fund special education programs and other critical operations for our schools. For example, the state formula funds three school nurses to serve Highline’s 32 schools. With students with daily medical needs in every school, Highline employs five times as many nurses as the state funds. Local levy dollars pay for that. In Seattle, the state funds 226 custodians to care for more than 3,200 classrooms. The district employs 312. Local levy dollars pay for that too.
The reality is that this new law, if left unchanged, will result in massive budget cuts, teacher layoffs and fewer student supports. In fact, as part of an ongoing effort to reduce an estimated $23.4 million deficit for the current 2018-2019 school year, Tacoma Public Schools has already eliminated 32 central office and school support services, including 17 exempt administrator positions.
We have been asking, and will continue to ask, our state to fully fund basic education to the standards our communities expect and our students deserve. Along with many other superintendents across Puget Sound, we have proposed specific fixes to legislators to avert massive budget cuts and layoffs.
In the meantime, we must fund our schools now. We cannot wait until the legislative session ends in April. Passage of local levies is imperative while the Legislature considers a more comprehensive solution.
Washington students and families value high-quality, equitable, public education, and local levies allow districts to provide the programs and school staff that make our districts some of the best in the country. The unintentional consequence of the current system is the opposite. We are on track for budget cuts that disproportionately hurt students of color and those who are living in poverty — the very students who are negatively impacted by the opportunity gap we are all striving to close. This runs counter to the intent of McCleary and to our districts’ commitments — to provide equitable education for all Washington students.
We deeply appreciate the generosity of voters in our region, as well as the hard work of legislators, and will continue to stand up for what is needed to fulfill our duty to every child in our communities.