Washington doesn’t need simply equitable school funding. The state needs ample enough funding so every child has the opportunity to succeed in life, no matter their ZIP code.
School starts within the next two weeks, and although lawmakers say they have finished reforming the way our state pays for education, I’m not so sure they’re finished.
In school-district offices across the state, officials are still trying to figure out what our lawmakers have done. The Washington Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether the Legislature has fixed the way the state pays for education to make the system constitutional. The justices should delay their decision on whether the state has fulfilled the requirements in its 2012 McCleary decision until that dust has settled.
Leaders in some districts, like Vancouver, are pleasantly surprised about how things look for them so far. Others in Seattle, Yakima and Spokane, fall somewhere on the spectrum between horrified, upset and just plain worried.
As Spokane district spokesman Kevin Morrison summarizes: “The devil is in the details.”
Since the state is phasing in some new systems, each of the next few years looks a little different. The changes — from regional pay for teachers to a new approach to local property-tax levies and new formulas for special education — are complex and may bring in more money one year but cut a district budget the next.
A Republican architect of the new world of Washington education finance acknowledges how complicated the new system is and that implementation will require some hard work as well. But Sen. John Braun added, during a recent meeting with The Seattle Times editorial board, “I think we did it right.”
Given enough time, we’ll all have the information we need to come to an informed conclusion: from Supreme Court justices to school parents.
The Yakima School District superintendent fluctuates between angry and baffled about the way the state changed the way teachers will be paid. Jack Irion says the district has a difficult time recruiting teachers to come to Yakima. He says the district has made some progress but now faces a new challenge: teachers in the school district right next-door, West Valley, will be getting 6 percent more money, because the cost of living in West Valley is slightly higher than in Yakima.
Yakima’s story is very concerning, and not because West Valley doesn’t need the extra cash to give its students the best teachers the district can recruit and enough money so they can live in the district. Officials in both districts told me they are trying to make sure every child gets a great education that will enable them to succeed in life.
The problem is Yakima starts out behind West Valley, with nearly twice as many students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch, unacceptable test scores and graduation rates, and a much higher unexcused absence rate.
Yakima gets some federal dollars and state dollars to help the district keep up financially. But equitable funding is not the goal. Yakima — and other struggling districts — should have all the money they need to do everything they can to get students up to grade level, passing the statewide tests, graduating on time and heading off to college or career training. That would take ample funding, which was the real goal of the McCleary decision. Ample, not just equitable.
Ample is expensive. But Yakima students should have whatever it takes to bring them up to the educational outcomes students in Bellevue are getting. Students in Bellevue aren’t any smarter or more deserving that students in Yakima. That’s what the late Mike Riley, former Bellevue superintendent, believed when he led the coalition that sued the state in what later led to the McCleary decision.
If the outcome of all that work in the Legislature just gives every school district an equal amount of state dollars, then the state of Washington has missed the point.
Spokane Superintendent Shelley Reddinger puts it another way: “Ultimately, we want the very best education for Washington students.” And, no, she’s not just talking about kids in Spokane.
Washington doesn’t need equitable school funding. The state needs ample enough funding — as the Washington Constitution requires — so every child has the same opportunity to succeed in life, no matter what ZIP code they live in.