Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn has filed a lawsuit he hopes will spur the legislature to assume financial responsibility for basic education costs now drawn from local school district levies. Dorn’s suit in King County Superior Court seeks to prevent school districts from using supplemental program funds for teacher salary hikes.
The proceeding dovetails with the controversial McCleary ruling by the State Supreme Court. McCleary aims to give the state a larger role in funding K-12 education, and resolve unequal burdens on taxpayers in different school districts. Dorn has been vocal about McCleary. In June, he wrote in a brief to the State Supreme Court justices that they should consider closing all state K-12 public schools to enforce the ruling.
His legal action adds to a Washington K-12 landscape already made complex by fiscal and policy concerns.
Contrary to the prevailing narrative, net new money may not be needed to meet the McCleary mandate. State lawmakers have been looking at capping local districts’ tax levy rates and shifting savings back to the state to redistribute more fairly. State cutbacks in other areas as the legislature crafts a new biennial budget next year, are another potential source of McCleary funds.
Although some lawmakers want new revenue, Lens reported in June that tax hikes are not required for McCleary, and some revenue measures being discussed are strongly opposed by tech sector business leaders who warn of harm to the state’s economy.
Further, some researchers have found that increased education spending and better academic outcomes are not always correlated. Others note that the lawsuit by Dorn actually accents needed reform imperatives including locally-guided merit pay, not the current state-driven system accenting seniority and credentials.
The average base teacher salary in Washington is $53,767. It goes up to $64,867 including extra money paid by school districts via supplemental contracts known as “time, responsibility, or incentives” (TRI) pay.
Collective bargaining for teacher base salaries is only allowed at the state level, but under 1980s state legislation, local districts and their teachers in Washington can bargain for supplemental pay under TRI provisions.
TRI pay has been fungible. In recent years local collective bargaining over supplemental pay has been used to raise teacher salaries. Sometimes, that requires taking local levy money meant for other education services.
Last year, the Spokane School District Board hiked prices for school meals and after-school programs and delayed a dual-language program in order to pay for new teacher raises.
‘Nobody Has Called Foul…Before’
“It’s why you can add more money and it doesn’t feel like you improve services,” Jami Lund said. Lund is a senior policy analyst at the Freedom Foundation. “Everyone knows that the law restricts this practice, but nobody has called foul on it before,” he added.
Lund explained that RCW 28A.400.200 makes it illegal for local school districts to pay teacher salaries greater than what the current state formula for basic education provides, except in circumstances where the TRI provision clearly applies through expansion of workloads via added time, responsibilities or incentives.
The problem, Lund said, is that many districts are now using the TRI loophole liberally to institute sweeping pay bumps and “not even pretending” that the special exception is being met.
Spokane is among six other school districts named in Dorn’s lawsuit. The others are Seattle, Everett, Bellevue, Tacoma, Evergreen and Puyallup. The suit also names Washington state as a defendant.
Dorn says using local levy money to pay teacher salaries causes significant inequities between districts. Those with higher local property values can raise more money at a lower tax rate. Or, some districts win voter approval to fully utilize their maximum taxing authority under state law, and some don’t.
However, Dorn told Lens he doesn’t blame districts for relying on local levies for teacher salaries because “this is the hand that the legislature dealt them.” By filing the lawsuit, “I’m saying the madness has to stop,” he said.
His latest move has drawn criticism from a variety of sources, including the Washington Educations (WEA), the state teachers union. “I know he’s trying to force the legislators’ hands, but there’s not enough money in the system now,” WEA Spokesperson Linda Mullen said. “He’s trying to shortchange the educators.”
More Spending No Panacea
Yet, increased education spending does not necessarily translate into improved academic results. The Washington State Institute For Public Policy in probes of class size reduction and all-day kindergarten found little benefit from added spending, across numerous vetted, peer-reviewed studies.
According to a policy analysis by the Cato Institute, there was “no correlation between what states have spent on education and their measured academic outcomes.”
As Lens has reported, a Washington state policy expert earlier this year told lawmakers that better school leadership and stronger support for starting teachers in their first year are “higher priorities” than increased salaries, for retaining teachers.
Pay Based On Merit – Not Seniority, Training
Liv Finne is the director of the Center for Education at Washington Policy Center. She told Lens it is time to abolish the state’s salary structure based on years of experience and education credits, and move toward a more localized, merit-based pay system. This would make the best use of tax money by funding the best teachers, she said.
“We have a compensation system that’s not related to the impact on the child,” she said. “You have a system that is very unfair to teachers who are professional and very effective in classroom.”
Finne opposes the Dorn suit’s intentions, arguing that local district officials are in a better position to fairly decide pay raises, but decisions must be merit-driven.
It remains to be seen what direction the state legislature will take.
Sen. Ann Rivers (R-18) is a member of the state’s Joint Education Funding Task Force. She told Lens she’s opposed to reducing teachers’ current salaries because “people have built their lives around having that money,” but at the same time, other teachers in poorer districts need to be better compensated.