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Making K-12 Investments Count, In Washington

Washington has pumped $5 billion more into K-12 basic education since the State Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling mandated that lawmakers step up. The state’s biennial K-12 operating funding has grown from $13.4 billion to $18.2 billion, according to a brief to the high court from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. However, outcomes have remained middling, and accountability measures will be key as the legislature finalizes a McCleary compliance plan in 2017 to assign an even greater share of K-12 support to the state. Especially because the plan may require voter approval.

Current Bang for Buck? Not Great

What we’re now getting for all the money isn’t too clear. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data found that less than half, and typically closer to just 40 percent, of Washington fourth and eighth-graders score “proficient” or better in math, reading, and science. Washington public high schools in 2015 had a 78 percent graduation rate, while the national average was 81 percent.  A recent Washington Roundtable report found that less than a third of Washington high school students go on to earn a postsecondary credential by age 26.

Such measures could be used to determine whether state K-12 education spending is yielding a good return on investment. Lawmakers and others see a range of options.

Rep. Dan Griffey (R-35) is a member of the House Education Committee. He told Lens any more new money attached to McCleary will have to include reforms such as linking student achievement test results to teacher evaluations. The legislature voted against a proposal to do that in 2014.

Outgoing State Rep. Chris Reykdal (D-22) serves on the House Education Committee and advocates strong ties between any K-12 state funding boost and the state’s plan to implement the U.S. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). He said this would “make sure …additional investments get results…”

Reykdal, one of two general election candidates for Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), told Lens he opposes punitive measures for underperforming schools, such as reducing state funding.

Diagnose What Ails Struggling Schools

“My approach is that a school that is struggling needs support,” Reykdal said. “They need to be diagnosed on why they’re struggling.” Are improvements “achievable in the short term? Is it a question of their leadership?”

Contending against Reykdal for OSPI is Erin Jones, who worked as a classroom teacher for 24 years. She told Lens that the state should avoid replicating accountability mechanisms that needlessly waste education dollars. One way to do this is by adopting existing processes such as the Consolidated Program Review (CPR), which is used for schools that accept federal education funding, and modifying it as necessary, she said.

See What Winners Are Doing

In the long-term, the state can make better use of data it already collects from schools by identifying the ones making academic progress and replicating their methods elsewhere, she said.

“We’ve got to get beyond this mere compliance,” she said. “We can jump through the hoops and still be failing kids. That for me, as someone who has been in this work for so long, is where I think we are missing these incredible opportunities.”

Marguerite Roza says local education problems are best solved at the community level. She is a senior research affiliate with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell, and director of Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.

2015 study co-authored by Roza examined rural schools across the country known as “productivity superstars” that generated higher academic results than expected based on their student demographics and funding levels.  The study findings indicated that “there was no one thing the state or federal government did from the top down to boost productivity” at those schools.

She told Lens that “you can have a state accountability system that doesn’t capture everything…because parents and communities are part of that accountability system.” Giving schools control of the purse strings also makes them more accountable, she added.

The accountability equation has to progress to aid for low performers, and more granular performance analysis along demographic lines can help target spending, said Arik Korman, communications director for the League of Education Voters.

He advocates further funding for the State Learning Assistance Program (LAP). It provides skills development and behavioral support services in schools to help improve outcomes for K–12 students who score below the grade-level standard in English and mathematics.

“There has to be some sort of mechanism (to ensure) that the money goes to the kids who need the support,” he said.

One possible cause for the differences in high school graduation rates is the difficulty in recruiting quality teachers to underperforming schools. In recent years, districts with the resources have augmented teacher salaries in lieu of additional state funding. Others haven’t been able to do so.

2017 McCleary legislation should go toward fixing this, said Lisa MacFarlane, head of the Washington chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.

“I would argue the most important nut to crack is investing in teacher quality and making sure we have an equitable distribution of teachers” across the state, she said. “We should provide incentives to teachers that want to go into underserved communities and schools…” Those incentives could include higher pay based on special skills and cost of living compensation, she added.

Research suggests careful targeting of any new K-12 funding is crucial. A 2014 Cato Institute study found that nationally, there was no direct correlation between overall increases in education spending and SAT test outcomes. The 1972-2012 Washington state data analyzed by Cato shows that as inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending rose nearly 100 percent over the 40-year span, SAT scores – adjusted for participation and demographics – stayed flat.

In contrast, a 2013 study by Donna Fong-Yee and Anthony H. Normore at the Florida International University found that “a student with a highly effective teacher can have positive gains in academic progress for years to come.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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