With another billion in new basic education spending for teacher salaries included in the 2018 supplemental budget by the state legislature this session, lawmakers say they’re meeting the State Supreme Court’s mandate to fully fund K-12 education as part of its 2012 McCleary decision.
Since the 2012 decision, the state has increased K-12 spending from $13.4 billion to $22.9 billion. Its share of the state’s general fund expenditures has increased from 43 percent to 49 percent, and by 2021 it’s expected to be 53 percent. By then, the state will have increased K-12 spending by almost 100 percent in a decade. Much of the spending will be paid for through a new state property tax increase passed by state lawmakers last year that shifted the financial burden for some K-12 spending away from local school districts.
However, the new spending has yet to translate into overall improved student achievement. On one hand, graduation rates have increased from 76 percent in 2011 to nearly 80 percent last year. Yet, average student proficiency in reading and math has either stagnated or fallen.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a.k.a. the “nation’s report card,” tests a sample of students in fourth and eighth grade on math, reading and science. Its latest reports for 2017 show the only area with improvement was eighth grade reading proficiency. Fourth grade reading and math proficiency as well as eighth grade math proficiency have both garnered lower or the same scores since 2011.
However, it’s worth noting that in each grade on both subjects Washington students outperformed the national average as well as the majority of states. Also, Washington eighth grade reading scores were second only to Massachusetts.
In a tweet, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal acknowledged persistent achievement gaps between different students, but added “Good news: we remain in the top 7 of all states in 8th grade math and ELA (English Language Arts).”
Elected in 2016, Reykdal’s six-year vision is to improve student outcomes by redesigning K-8 and better preparing high school students for careers that don’t require higher education.
The lower scores appear to be part of a national trend. The 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress “represented the first time math and reading scores had declined or remained stagnant since the test was first administered in 1990.”
That’s according to Lindsey Burke, a researcher at The Heritage Foundation. In an article for the Daily Signal, Burke adds that in the 2017 report card, “not a single state increased fourth-grade reading performance over 2015 levels.”
Burke blames the national trend of lower scores on “increasing federal intervention over the past half-century…the resulting burden of complying with federal programs, rules, and regulations, have created a parasitic relationship with federal education programs and states, and is straining the time and resources of local schools. Instead of responding first to students, parents, and taxpayers, federal education micromanagement has encouraged state education systems and local school districts to orient their focus to the demands of Washington.”
Yet, recent changes in federal policy on the role states play in education may help turn the situation around. In 2015, Congress approved the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing the 2001 No Child No Left Behind Act. The legislation has been described as one of the most significant shifts in federal authority in the last 50 years.
Last year, Reykdal released Washington’s ESSA plan, which started this school year. The plan uses a 1-10 scale to identify schools requiring assistance. The criteria includes math and reading scores, along with student absences. High schools will also be scored in part by graduation rates. Last month, the state released the Washington School Improvement Framework (WSIF) to identify schools for support under that plan.
In the meantime, Washington Policy Center Education Director Liv Finne says that the one group that has benefited from the new education spending has been the public teachers unions. After obtaining the $1 billion toward increased teacher pay, the Washington Education Association (WEA) is now seeking double-digit salary increases.
She writes that “Union executives have used the public’s natural concern about local schools to increase taxes and funding, ostensibly to improve programs for kids. Now we learn these new funds will instead be providing bigger incomes for union members…. The end result of the McCleary case was not so much about improving education for children, but in expanding the power and money of the union within the system.
“Washington families are seeing the impact in massive increases in their property tax bills, a rising burden that is reducing the take-home income of every household in the state,” she wrote further. “Now we know where much of that money is going.”