Posted by George
It was standing room only at Tuesday’s meeting of the Basic Education Finance Task Force. As the Task Force bears down on the work of designing a better, more ample funding plan for schools, the room is filling with advocates, educators, print reporters and TVW. Soon we’re going to need a bigger room.
Most school advocates were encouraged by the sense that the Task Force is finally grappling with the rude question of what should be included in the cost of basic education. There were no academic discussions or presentations by visitors from out-of-state, just our own officials wrestling with the situation on the ground here in Washington.
Steve Aos, with the Washington Institute for Public Policy, the state agency that is staffing the Task Force, led off with his conclusions from the institute’s two major lines of research on compensation and class size. The state’s teacher salary schedule, which stretches incremental pay increases over 16 years, does not align well with the research that shows that the biggest gains in teacher effectiveness are in the first six years. A smarter system would aim to reward productivity gains, not simply years of service. On the issue of class size, the evidence is clear that reduced class sizes in grades K-3 matter. Mr. Aos even quantified the return on that investment: 10 to 16 percent over the lifetime of students.
That led to a vigorous discussion among members over the relative value of master degrees and years of experience. Experience won. Chair Dan Grimm was struck by Bremerton Superintendent Bette Hyde’s observation that her teachers all too frequently moved to other districts where they were paid more for the same job. How does that square with the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a “general and uniform” system of public schools?
Next, Rep. Ross Hunter presented his vision for a cost-based model for K-12 funding. He begins with a simple, bold—and unassailable—premise: build the K-12 budget around what kids need to meet the state’s high school graduation requirements. Because the State Board of Education is proposing to raise the minimum requirements so that high school graduates are prepared for college or meaningful employment, he starts there: fully fund 24 core credits, including three years of math and four years of English. At a minimum, this would mean funding six periods of high school instead of five.
Rep. Hunter would have the state build and cost out four model school programs (K-4, 4-5, 6-8 and 9-12) and then write the K-12 budget to fund them. He also proposes the state build and cost out model programs for English Language Learners, free and reduced-price lunch and special education students, programs reasonable people would agree are needed to provide all students with the opportunity to meet the state’s graduation requirements.
Rep. Hunter wants to require the Legislature to make explicit decisions about key cost drivers that are now obscure: class sizes, number of periods per day, and amount of teacher preparation time. He proposed further adjusting the high school model program costs to reflect four kinds of students: typical, struggling, honors and Career and Technical Education. And to avoid descending into the weeds, he imposes on each model school program the one-page rule.
Rep. Hunter wants the state to allocate funding for these model programs as a single block grant, and allow local districts to make actual spending decisions as they think best. To the extent districts choose to spend funds differently than the state allocation model, let them defend those choices to their parents and voters.
Next, Jennifer Priddy, finance guru at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, presented a sobering snapshot of current financing trends in districts. Declining fund balances have become the norm. The bottom line is districts are too reliant on local funds ( levies and I-728 ) that don’t keep up with inflation to support their current staffing levels and salaries. Expect to see more and more districts facing financial insolvency.
Chair Grimm asked, how much of the problem is due to the State’s underfunding of basic education and how much to districts’ own spending decisions? Superintendent Hyde responded that districts are facing a perfect storm. The very year that students must meet the WASL graduation standards, all the superintendents she knows are being forced to make cuts. The responsibility for the problem falls squarely on the State.
Last up was Mary Jean Ryan, chair of the State Board of Education, who made a compelling case for raising graduation standards. Unlike the rest of the modern world, and every previous generation of Americans, today’s students will be less well-educated than their parent’s generation.
Chair Grimm asked, why not let local districts set their own graduation requirements? Ms. Ryan answered, in an increasingly globalized economy where our students need to compete with their peers from all over the world, local standards just don’t work.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson noted that district superintendents are telling her they can’t imagine how to fund 24 core graduation requirements with current resources. But once the State Board adopts these requirements, it’s hard to imagine how the State can evade responsibility for providing the programs students will need to meet them—which is precisely Rep. Hunter’s point.
Next meeting, stakeholder groups and concerned individuals are invited to make presentations. The League of Education Voters plans to be one of them. Our focus will be ample funding and needed structural reforms.