Eight years after the State Supreme Court’s McCleary decision and subsequent billions in new tax revenue poured into the K-12 system by the state legislature, school shutdowns across the state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may indicate a shift in the public education system. For some education experts, it is an opportunity to push for greater school choice that they believe will incentivize better public school policy.
Reason Foundation Director of School Choice Corey A. DeAngelis said at the Roanoke Conference’s Oct. 14 livestream that “the silver lining of this pandemic is that…people are revisioning the factory model of school but also revisioning education finance. The school system has just gotten so bad.”
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reported last month a 2.8-percent drop in student enrollment compared to last year. While that may seem nebulous to some, Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Myers put the figure in perspective when said during the livestream that those31,000 students represent the equivalent of the entire Spokane School District leaving the system.
“That’s what we’re dealing with right now,” he said.
Also significant is the drop in kindergarten enrollment – which is 14 percent compared to 2019. This number is important, as one of the major aspects of increased state education funding was focused on the implementation of all-day kindergarten. For every school district, student enrollment is used by the state to determine how much funding they receive via general apportionment.
While some school officials argue that more tax revenue is needed to support the education system, critics point to what they see as a chronic lack of accountability to both taxpayers and parents. Although most schools remain closed to in-person learning, some districts are using those facilities for paid daycare services.
Additionally, recent decisions by districts and remarks by state officials indicate a planned transition from standardized testing and the traditional grading system, which opponents claim make it harder to track academic progress.
DeAngelis said the problem is a lack of incentives for a school system that “gets your money regardless of how they meet the needs of individual customers. Just imagine if your local grocery store received the same amount of money from you each week, and you were compelled to pay them each week regardless of whether they had their doors opened for business.”
Running against Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal in this year’s election is Maia Espinoza, a music teacher and member of the OSPI’s Race and Ethnicity Student Data Task Force. During the livestream she said the key problem for education is “lack of choice, freedom, and flexibility in our school system. We have really good schools that are well funded and doing great, and then we have disparities in really struggling schools in our state. One of the remedies to this has always been school choice.”
However, efforts to implement a charter school system in Washington state have faced numerous political and legal hurdles. A 2012 voter initiative creating charter schools was overturned by the State Supreme Court, only to be reinstated by the state legislature in 2016 and upheld in 2018. Yet, those schools have been underfunded by the legislature in recent years even as both tax revenue and K-12 spending have increased dramatically.
“It was crazy to me that our state seems to put charter schools under fire,” Espinoza said. “I have become accidentally an advocate for charter schools just by way of wanting choice for parents who don’t have a choice.”
DeAngelis and others such as WPC Education Director Liv Finne are in favor of education funding that follows the individual student, whether they’re at a public or charter school.
“A lot of families might continue homeschool long term,” DeAngelis said. “But for some families that may not be economically feasible long-term. If you fund the students directly, you lead to more equity because at the same time, let’s face it, well-off families already have school choice.”
Among countries with a school choice approach is Finland, considered to have one of the best performing systems in the world. Not only are parents allowed to choose from both local public and private schools, but teachers are hired by the schools rather than at the district level.
“Why is it so controversial to suggest that parents control the money and allow that money to go to a private school, if that is the best solution to the child?” Finne said. “Why is it so difficult for people to accept that idea?”