What has new basic education spending achieved?

What has new basic education spending achieved?
While basic education spending has increased by $12 billion since the 2013-15 biennium, some question how that has affected student academic outcomes. Photo: freepik.com

Although the latest update from the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council (ERFC) shows a 20 percent jump in revenue compared to the June forecast, the state still faces a significant budget shortfall—driven in part by large spending increases since 2013-15. More than half of that new spending has gone to basic education in response to a 2012 State Supreme Court ruling.

Now that several years have passed since the high court found the state in compliance, and now with some schools reopening amidst the pandemic, lawmakers and education analysts are divided on both the return on investment that has been achieved in the K-12 system and any potential changes that could make it harder to track such improvements. Although all sides appear to see opportunities to improve, that’s often where the commonality ends.

The State Supreme Court ruled in its McCleary decision eight years ago that the state legislature was failing to comply with the state constitution’s mandate to fully fund basic education by instead relying on local school district levies. After numerous legislative sessions that often dragged on into special sessions, the legislature eventually increased overall basic education spending by $12 billion per biennium compared to 2013-15.

Although the court has since found them in compliance, critics such as Washington Policy Center Education Director Liv Finne say it has done little to actually improve academic quality.

“I see the immense failure in this experiment of providing more funding to a monopoly system that has clearly failed the parents of Washington state. The system is failing all around,” she told Lens.

However, others such as Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5) offer a more moderate assessment. A member of the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, he told Lens that the effects of changes reflected in student performance from the new spending – such as all-day kindergarten and smaller K-3 classroom sizes – won’t be known until the students who have experienced the change begin testing and ultimately graduate high school.

While Finne notes the enormous increase in teacher salaries as a result of the changes, Mullet argues that “they weren’t being paid fairly. We should be really proud of that (salary increases). If that ends up with higher quality teachers with less turnover…it could lead to better student outcomes.”

Yet he added that “there’s still lot of room for improvement.”

Incidentally, that is also a view shared by Washington Education Association (WEA) President Larry Delaney. In an interview with TVW, he said “COVID has shined a light on the inequities that has always existed within our public education system. As we move forward, my hope is this gives us an opportunity to really rethink and reevaluate what public education should be….Who is it serving and who is it not serving?”

The divergence comes when measuring “progress.” When asked about the potential academic setback for students affected by the school shutdown, Delaney told TVW “we’ve got this attachment to these arbitrary standards that we’ve put out there. As a parent, we have concerns ‘is my child falling behind?’ My question would be ‘falling behind who?’ If everyone is ‘behind’, I guess no one is behind.’”

However, Finne says this attitude reflects what she sees as the dysfunctional state of the K-12 system. “In terms of the public…for all the dollars they provided the education system, they have not gotten value for that. There’s been no return in value in terms of better schools, better teachers.”

She also points to efforts to alter academic standards and metrics that allow side-by-side comparison to students from prior years, such as standardized testing, the grading system, and high school graduation rates. As far as testing is concern, student academic performance has actually declined since 2012.

The Seattle School District voted in April to give the superintendent authority to eliminate the traditional grading system in favor of an A or incomplete. Although it was done in response to the school shutdown, district officials plan to make these changes permanent, while Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal has voiced support for a new, statewide grading system. There have already been legislative efforts to alter requirements for a high school diploma by delinking it from test results.

“They’re trying to erase that, so people like me can’t say ‘You doubled your money and the kids learning levels are flat,’” Finne said.

While basic education spending increased, she notes that charter school funding has decreased, with several schools recently closed.

Mullet said he is opposed to “watered down” academic standards via grading system or graduation requirements. “You’re going to lose the data points to compare before and after. When you put billions of dollars into the system, taking away accountability is a little dangerous. In the long-term, the challenge is you want a meaningful high school diploma.”

Reflecting on the state’s new education spending, Mullet said that in hindsight the money lacked proper earmarks. Of $12 billion in new spending per biennium, $8 billion goes toward general apportionment distributed to the school districts based primarily around enrollment.

“We thought it was going to be a more even mix between new programs and new teacher pay, Mullet said. “It probably got shifted a lot more towards compensation than other programs. The challenge of it is politically. You become a huge target of the WEA if you speak out publicly about these things.”

Mullet said he envisions the system better preparing students for a variety of post-high school paths including trade school or community college. One potential change could be allowing some students who do better with remote learning to retain it. “They want to choose a hybrid path…I think that’s something the state should be open to considering. Not the default choice, but for some kids it’s a better fit.”

While the long-term effects of COVID-19 on schools such as remote learning is unknown, Finne said it’s revealed to parents existing problems within the system. In Seattle half of students failed to log in for the start of the academic year. Although the Lake Washington School District isn’t allowing in-person learning, they are offering paid “childcare” for K-5 students at several elementary schools. Delaney told TVW that the difference between childcare and regular schools “comes down to scale.”

Citing the defeat of numerous local levies last month, Finne said “the pandemic is shown up with a bright shining light that we have no control over the system. They don’t have to respond to us.”

Finne supports a $3,000 per-student stipend to families when there’s remote learning. “That is a modest amount when you consider the fact that we’re spending about $16,000 per student.”

This is the second story in a series examining Washington state’s budget and finances.

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