Finding A Fix For The Differences Between Washington School Districts

Finding A Fix For The Differences Between Washington School Districts
A special task force is working on a funding plan for K-12 basic education in Washington. Recommendations to the legislature are due early next year. Seen here is Jefferson Elementary School in Port Angeles. Photo: Washington State Library

As in other states, employers in Washington underscore their vital stake in K-12 and higher education. Workers who can think, speak, write, and compute clearly, and who can master higher-order organizational and technical duties are increasingly required, in order to compete globally. Yet despite some progress, a skills gap persists. Meanwhile, school districts across the state can have vastly different resources.

So the table has been set for a special task force of lawmakers who must figure out how to comply with the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling. It holds that the state by 2018 must finalize how to provide a much greater share of K-12 basic education costs.

Ferreting Out The Facts

However, first the panel must ferret out exactly where the money paid to local teachers and other school workers is coming from, and where it is going. That may sound like something that should already be crystal clear, but it’s not.

Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee Chair Steve Litzow (R-41) said that “poor accounting systems” plus “300-page collective bargaining agreements” and a total of 295 districts statewide all make it very difficult to zero in on current cost-sharing.

Exploiting A Loophole

Adding to the murkiness, some districts having been using a state law loophole involving locally-bargained “time, responsibility and initiative” (TRI) pay premiums for teachers to boost their base pay, even if there are no actual extra duties or initiatives involved. State law otherwise forbids local adjustments to teacher pay, in order to try to minimize resource disparities between districts.

The growing emphasis on money leaves out other key variables, such as the crucial role of parents in helping children become ready to learn. Yet, it is accented in the state’s basic education statute, and through the state’s considerable involvement in early childhood education

Still, the focus now in Olympia is on how state government can engineer a shift of about $3 billion over the next roughly six years from local districts to the state, to more fully and equitably cover the costs of basic education.

An Earful From Stakeholders

As the task force members met Tuesday, September 6 in Olympia to hear an interim report from consultants who are collecting salary data from school districts statewide, legislators got an earful from school advocates and government watchdogs who packed the hearing room.

Representing Seattle-based Soup For Teachers and the statewide schools funding advocacy organization Paramount Duty, former teacher Joan Burton said, “Across the state, teacher salaries, schedules and available school facilities differ vastly depending on school district affluence. Proof of this wide disparity can be found in the teacher shortage in low income and rural areas. Equitable funding means fair and equal distribution to all communities.” Inequity is particularly evident in staffing ratios, availability of good textbooks, and building and classroom maintenance, Burton said.

Preferential Treatment Decried

Jami Lund, a senior policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, argued there is too much local control of teacher salaries and the result is more inequity, not less, with younger teachers often paying the price.

Drawing on an example from the Everett School District, Lund in his testimony said to the task force, “Union-controlled salary negotiation creates injustices never intended by the more thoughtful legislative salary system…Is it the state’s intention to pay some double for the same day’s work? No it’s not. The state’s salary schedule doesn’t set it up this way but this injustice is created by allowing a union, a private organization, to readjust the state salary spending priorities.”

Lund added that the 2009 recommendations of the state’s basic education finance task force to tighten ground rules for TRI pay, are key. The report (p. 18) advised, “Restrict supplemental pay beyond the standard contract for teachers and other education professionals to activities that require additional time…Supplemental contracts must specify the minimum amount of additional time required, its purpose, and the amount of the contract. This information must be reported in a common format to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to improve transparency and analysis.”

The task force is to include recommendations on collective bargaining by local school districts.

Basic Education: It Covers A Lot

Among the programs covered under basic education are regular instruction, plus “alternative learning experience;” special, vocational, bilingual and highly capable education; learning assistance; non-adult education in state institutions; and pupil transportation.

Other advocates testifying to the task force September 6 urged that they include in their recommendations strategies to fund beefed-up social services in K-12 schools, so that at-risk students would be more ready to learn. School librarians staked a claim, as well, accenting that basic ed includes technology literacy.

Market Rates And Local Variations

The consulting firm gathering current school district financial data for the task force will also try to pinpoint market rate salaries for various K-12 staff positions.  Additionally, it will evaluate whether and how a “local labor market adjustment formula should be implemented,” and based on what factors.

Some statehouse observers predict a “levy swap-plus” solution will be proposed in the end. It would entail some version of the expected major shift of the local basic ed funding burden to the state, but could also involve some limited amount of new revenue from sources yet to be determined.

Democrats are keen on a state capital gains tax, strongly opposed by business, plus investors large and small, and Republicans. Another factor: sources say the state has about $450 million more in unexpected new revenue since the legislature ended its 2016 session.

The consultant’s final report is due November 15, and the task force by early January must submit to Governor Jay Inslee and lawmakers its recommendations. Legislators will then work during the 2017 budget session to develop a final proposal. A related ballot initiative to voters is considered likely in November of 2017.


Additional reporting by Brittan Jenkins


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