School districts and education-policy advocates are analyzing the newly passed state budget, trying to figure out how it will affect the 1.1 million students in Washington state’s public schools.
In the end, the introduction and passage of the Washington Legislature’s sweeping public-school spending bill happened so quickly that its impact on the state’s 295 school districts is only just starting to come into focus.
Officials from some districts, like Highline in Southeast King County, seemed pleasantly surprised by the last-minute, $7.3 billion deal.
Many others, including officials with Seattle Public Schools — the state’s largest district — remained hesitant to declare victory or defeat before understanding the full details of a four-year spending plan that the Legislature unveiled Thursday and approved Friday.
Highlights of the McCleary agreement, released Thursday:
• A three-tier regional difference in how much the state provides for school employees, starting in the 2018-19 school year, based on housing costs.
• Existing teacher-salary schedule, based on seniority and education, to be eliminated.
• Beginning teachers would make at least $40,000. The maximum would be $90,000, although districts could pay more in areas with higher housing costs and for educators who teach science, technology, engineering and math or provide bilingual and special-education instruction.
• Increases to the amount of money provided for students who are below grade level, or are eligible for special-education or highly capable programs.
• Local levies for education are capped, starting in 2019, at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, or $2,500 per pupil, whichever is lower.
• Initiative 1351, passed by voters in 2014, is kept on hold, with a work group assigned to recommend whether to phase in its class-size reductions and increased school staffing.
• Control of health benefits for all school employees would be moved from individual districts to the state.
Source: Senate Democratic Caucus and House Office of Program Research
That swift timeline left the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction with just hours to determine how a proposed cut to local property-tax levies in favor of a uniform, higher statewide tax rate would impact the education of 1.1 million schoolchildren.
State schools chief Chris Reykdal said his staff’s early analysis suggested that, overall, the net gain for the public schools will be about $1 billion to $1.2 billion per year.
“We’re running those numbers now,” he said. “It’s really positive. It’s a great place to start, but we have a ways to go.”
With Gov. Jay Inslee’s approval late Friday, the Legislature’s 11th-hour deal will next be evaluated by the state Supreme Court.
The justices, in the landmark McCleary school-funding case, found the state in violation of its constitution by failing to cover the costs of a basic education for all students. Lawmakers hope the new 2017-21 spending plan satisfies the court’s order to fix that.
Some are already saying they think it will fall short.
“Does this satisfy the Supreme Court’s order in this case? Definitely no,” said Tom Ahearne, the lawyer who represented the McCleary plaintiffs in court.
But, he added, the justices “are going to have to decide whether they’ll surrender and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ or whether they’ll stand up for what they’ve ruled. I certainly hope they don’t surrender.”
He also said the Legislature overshot the deadline to implement its spending plan.
A Supreme Court order filed in October, however, doesn’t make it clear whether lawmakers must have a plan adopted by the Sept. 1, 2018, deadline, or whether they must have all the funding in place.
One of the few districts that said they had some early analysis was Highline Public Schools, and Duggan Harman, chief of staff and finance, said that showed the budget will be a win for his district and local taxpayers.
Highline had projected property owners would pay a levy rate of $4.02 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2018. Now that will drop by more than a dollar under the state budget.
Revenue from the higher statewide property-tax will increase as a result and outweigh any loss in local levy dollars.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the progress they made. A lot of us expected that it would not be a significant game changer,” Harman said.
Seattle Public Schools officials sounded a less positive note.
The budget, officials said in a statement sent late Friday, shows a net increase for the city, which some Seattle legislators estimated at $14 million for the 2017-18 school year.
But they questioned the wisdom behind new restrictions placed on how they can spend local revenue, which can no longer help cover Seattle’s $60 million price tag for special education — or any other cost that’s considered “basic” education.
“The proposed budget provides the district $16 million in new special-education money but takes away the ability to use local levy dollars to fill the remaining $44 million gap,” the statement said. “This is untenable.”
At the state level, the Department of Early Learning was pleased to see that lawmakers included $25.1 million to add 1,800 slots to the state’s preschool program for low-income families.
But it was concerned with cuts to a program that trains child-care providers and rates their programs, said Frank Ordway, the department’s assistant director of government and community relations. Department staffers are already planning to push for additional funding in 2019.
Summer Stinson, of the education-advocacy group Washington’s Paramount Duty, said her biggest concerns are teacher pay and statewide property taxes.
In her view, capping teacher salaries at $90,000, as proposed, doesn’t meet the court’s order to pay enough to attract and retain educators.
Complying with McCleary means “putting out a package that truly does make it desirable to be an educator in a public school in Washington,” Stinson said.
As for property taxes, “What happens when we face our next recession? Our next downturn?” Stinson asked.
Dave Powell, the government-affairs director at Stand For Children, another advocacy group, said his organization was glad to see what it views as increased equity.
One example, he said, was getting rid of a funding formula that allocates money to school districts based on the seniority and education level of their teachers. Called the “staff mix,” that formula tends to benefit wealthier districts because they often have a higher percentage of experienced teachers.
Powell also highlighted a new $500 million fund for schools with a high concentration of students living in poverty.
“There will be very strong opinions about this package,” said Powell. “But when I put it into perspective, the state is investing a lot more in K-12 … We’re optimistic it will improve student outcomes as long as we make wise local spending choices.”
The Washington Association of School Administrators also found a silver lining: Many of these reforms don’t actually kick in until the 2018-19 school year.
“Perhaps that is the biggest positive here,” said Dan Steele, assistant executive director of the organization. “This will give school districts some time to prepare and adjust — and will hopefully give us some time in the 2018 (legislative) session to get fixes if something is just flat wrong.”
Information in this article, originally published June 30, 2017, was corrected June 30, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that lawmakers approved a new $500 billion fund for schools with a high concentration of students living in poverty. The fund is $500 million.