edCored: K-12 education funding in Washington state – a broken promise

This blog post was written by Barb Billinghurst for our edCored series on education funding. Barb is one of LEV’s Key Activists and school finance researcher. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

The 1889 framers of Washington state’s constitution made a promise to future generations when they wrote:

“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders…”

The constitution has been interpreted by State Court judges in 1978 and 1983 to mean that the state must define and fully fund basic education.  Further, the Court said the state cannot require districts to use local levies to fund basic education.

With such powerful words you would think that state dollars would figure prominently in the funding of K-12 education.   And judging by the length of the red bars below, the state in fact has always funded the lion’s share in the last 19 years.

Source:  Based on data from Table Two:  Ten-Year Comparison of General Fund Revenues and Other Financing Sources per FTE Student in Section One of the State’s School District & ESD Financial Reporting Summary for various fiscal years.

But over time the state share has declined.  Starting out at 78 percent in school year 1991-92, it fell to 65 percent in school year 2009-10.

Does the decline in state share signal a retreat from the state’s obligation to fund basic education?

Yes, since 1994, the state’s contribution to total (from local, state, and federal sources) spending per student steadily lost ground against inflation as measured by the Seattle Consumer Price Index.   To match the purchasing power of its contribution in 1994, the state would have to spend at least $200 more per student in school year 2009-10.

Meanwhile, the local share grew from 15 percent to 20 percent since school year 1991-92.   Local levy funds have become essential to our children’s education.

In fact, superintendents, school board members and even OSPI officials have all testified that, despite state law, local levy dollars fund basic education.

Evidently, this is a practice that has gone on for some time.

As the Washington Association of School Administrators revealed in its 2007 Legislative Report:

Superintendents from districts large and small testified repeatedly that districts are facing a financial crisis primarily because they have to increasingly rely on local levy funding to make up the difference between what the state provides for basic education programs and what it costs to carry them out; to meet the needs for additional programs to bring all students up to state mandated standards; to fulfill collective bargaining agreements for non-state employees; and, to pay for unfunded mandates.

There could be no doubt that if the state properly funded basic education, levies would serve their original and important purpose.   That is, they would provide flexibility for local communities to go beyond the basics to enrich their school programs, experiment and innovate, and tailor programs to local needs.

As cuts in state funding slice deeper, it’s no wonder we read stories of schools offering a stripped-down curriculum, devoid of the many amazing cultural, academic, and athletic experiences that we know have the power to light fires.

Just when we should be broadening our children’s horizons, we are instead narrowing them.   A broken promise leaves our children the lesser for it.

edCored: The importance of outreach services

Dee Klem, a parent of two in the Kent School District who runs the district’s elementary Communities in Schools’ program, wrote this blog post for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

For schools to succeed, students need to be ready to learn. For children to be ready to learn, they need to eat a healthy meal, get a good night sleep and have the supplies they need. Is this the responsibility of the school? Most would say no, it is not; however the reality is that this responsibility is falling to schools as government services and other social programs are being cut back or eliminated altogether.

When cuts come around to education funding, administrators face tough choices and often these outreach services end up on the chopping block – at a time when they are needed the most. What does these mean for our students? For our education system? It means we have students coming to school who are not ready to learn. It means we have teachers in classrooms with multiple students not ready to learn; it means we have lunchrooms crowded with students who need a good meal. Imagine a school that used to have a part-time family advocate and a full-time counselor, and now it has neither. Let’s add to that the fact that the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch has climbed by double digits. It means more kids “on the bubble” are now falling behind.

Communities In Schools operates programs in 12 Washington schools districts all reaching OUT into the community to bring these critical services IN to the schools. These programs are innovative/creative, and for many students, they are the critical piece that is making a difference. It is these kinds of partnerships and services that will help to shape how we enable those students who are falling through the cracks to be ready to learn and to succeed. Education is not going to receive a funding windfall any time soon, so developing and growing these types of programs will be a critical piece of how we grow out of the crisis.

edCored: Innovate, create, invent and when you need to reinvent

Catherine Ushka-Hall is currently the Vice President of the Tacoma School District Board of Directors, having been elected to her first six-year term in 2009. She is a lifelong education advocate, and her two teenagers attend Tacoma Public Schools. She wrote this for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

As I sat at the dais at the beginning of discussions on budget cuts last year, I placed a note between myself and our board president that reflected the guiding principles we had agreed to over coffee. It had four simple words: “Innovate, Create, Invent, Reinvent.” These words reflect a commitment to not give up on improving the quality of education we provide for our students in spite of the cuts that lay before us. I underestimated the amount of courage it would take to remain true to those principals, and the extent of culture change those words represent from the classroom to Olympia. We must innovate and engage in continuous improvement as the stewards of our fate represented by the kids in each and every classroom in the state.

Silence is not an option.

The public was far from silent when more than 1,500 parents showed up to be counted or testify when the idea of closing a high school was suggested to reduce just $2 million of more than $38 million in cuts. The public was also not silent when we made the painful decision to close two grade schools for a total savings of $1 million. Our teachers were not silent when we sought to pass cuts to them, or alter contract language to allow us the flexibility to place staff where they best fit based on the skills of the teacher and the goals of the school community. Ironically though, the public was completely silent when I clearly stated during public session that the two school closures were likely to be the first, but not the last, as we would begin the 2012 school year with thousands of empty elementary seats, and anticipated the onslaught of further reductions.

I will not be silent now as if there is a possibility of $2 billion in reductions not affecting us, or as if this is not a crisis.

Whether pitting neighbors against each other or education against corrections, “do it to someone else” is not the answer that we need. In our hearts and minds we know this is true. As a board member I am steward of the educational system, however as a citizen, I am also a steward of our whole community. These are not conflicting interests, and we must expect citizens, staff, and our leaders to have the courage to forgo individual politics and personal fears so that false premise is not galvanized as fact. To do so would create a climate where innovation is impossible at a time when it is essential to our success.

You may be wondering what my point is beyond deep-felt frustration. It is this: we cannot allow cuts to levy equalization or all-day kindergarten that would harm those children and districts most at-risk and further drive inequality in our system. We must insist that our legislators make whatever cuts they do on the state level so neighbors are not pitted against one another. We must honor them personally and politically for having the courage to do so. We must temporarily put aside the battle to ensure that the state meets its paramount duty of funding, and we must identify and support the creation of new revenue streams that allow for stability in education and all of the government services that we rely on. If that means overturning the requirement of a 60 percent supermajority, or insisting that the supermajority define itself, then so be it. If that means the creation of a state income tax, or the removal of some loophole, then so be it. If that means that we ensure Washington works with Washington to untie our hands from the limitations of No Child Left Behnd so that we can work without fear of condemnation, then so be it. I am not claiming that these are the answers; however, I am insisting that we find the answers together and move forward with clear intent to find and implement innovations that empower us to provide excellence in our new economy.

As we begin our board review of further anticipated shortfalls, I will add a fifth word to my notepad to ensure I do not lose sight: courage.

I challenge myself and my peers to define it in their words and actions. In the end, it truly is all about the kids. I will strive to be able to tell my grandchildren (not a hint to my teenagers, by the way) how people from otherwise opposing sides came together to recreate a system so that they and every student of their generation is empowered with the greatest tool we can provide: a quality education. As we move through the sometimes ugly process of democracy, I urge the citizens and leaders of our great state to create this story with me. I cannot promise we will be successful. I can promise that it will be a story worth telling.

edCored: Explaining the operating fund balance

This blog post was written by Janet Suppes, a budget analyst who lives in the Bellevue School District, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

Most people seem to pretty easily grasp the concepts of school revenues and expenses, even the seemingly arcane walls between one fund and another. It may not make sense that bond money can’t be used to staff the classroom, but those are the rules set up by law, so no reason to argue about the rationale. But after the discussion of this is done, and the discussion turns to the fund balance? Eyes begin to glaze over. People just assume that money comes in and goes out in equal portions, and that’s the end of the story.

But it isn’t. Schools have what is essentially a savings account: the operating fund balance. It’s what is left over after expenses are paid. If the balance drops below 2% of prior year expenses, the state regulators will start looking to see if there is a problem and if there is a danger of insolvency. A district has to have a contingency fund, just like any of us should do. One district in our state is now going through that process; it isn’t a theoretical.

The question is: how big should that fund balance be?

To answer that, it is important to understand what is in the fund balance. It isn’t just cash in the bank, ready to be spent. Some of it is non-cash, like inventory waiting to be put into service. Some of it has been purposely set aside for legal obligations, such as insurance payments. Some districts have chosen to put money in the bank in case the state does what it did this year, which was ask for money to fund public employee pensions for past years. The Bellevue School District has chosen to bank those funds in the last few years, rather than let that money go into that year’s expenses. Now that the state wants to collect it, it is there, and cuts are not required from the current year’s budget to meet the obligation.

Once those amounts are accounted for, called restricted and designated funds, the remaining money is what the district has for unseen events. The government board that oversees school districts has asked each district to establish a board policy for what this amount should be. Most districts are setting that amount at 5% of the previous year’s general fund expenses, which is the sum total of what it took to run the district to operate schools. That money is held aside, and not available for current year expenses. It is only used if there is an emergency (the roof blows off a building), or other unforeseen event that has a major financial impact on the district.

But that level may not be high enough for ratings companies, such as Moody’s, thanks to our elected officials in Olympia. Last year, the state Legislature demonstrated that they could reach out and take district reserves, by making mid-year cuts. The teachers were already hired for K-4 class size reductions, so when that income disappeared, districts were forced to pay those teachers with money from their reserves. It is possible that the reserve should be closer to 10%, if the state is going to make this a regular practice. Otherwise they could be faced with having their credit rating reduced, and their borrowing costs increased.

I would hope that districts and unions keep this in mind as they negotiate contracts. That money isn’t there to fund ongoing expenses, such as pay increases or hiring. It is there for the long term financial security of the school district.

edCored: The F word

This blog post was written by Jennifer Harjehausen, PTA member in the Kent School District, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

At the end of August, our school board approved and the teachers ratified a new two-year contract. The 1.9% salary reduction mandated by our state legislature was not passed down to our teachers. Kent School District, like many districts, pulled the money from somewhere else.

Hmmm . . . the first thing I thought when I read this was – “Great, more PTA fundraising.” To say that fundraising is a challenge at my school would be an understatement. We are very small – hovering around 300 students – and are 70% low income.

As state and district and building and PTA budgets drop year after year, the pressure on our PTA to eliminate the “fun” programs continues. Things like having the Pacific Science Center visit are memories. Unless it’s a free assembly or a “must-have” program, it’s just not happening anymore. Our PTA must supply the trash bags used at PTA-sponsored events. We buy the sanitizing wipes for the computer lab. We buy the underwear and spare clothes kept in the office for when kids need them. And, more and more each day, it’s just about these bare necessities.

Just yesterday, my principal wrote to me asking if our PTA had found a grant-writing chair yet. While the PTA historically has purchased 15 copies of “Battle Books” each year, the school can no longer afford to buy five extras that it usually does for study groups. To think that our kids may not have the same resources as other kids to participate in this district-wide event is truly heartbreaking.

Of course, I want to jump in and fix the problem. I’ve already started thinking of ways to get the books, but then I remember that I need to continue to advocate and share my knowledge with others. Only by changing the big picture can we change the outcome. By fixing problems as they arise and putting band-aids on the ever-increasing gap with fundraising and grant applications, we as PTA ARE NOT serving our children. We are enabling the system that is not putting our kids first. We are contributing to the achievement gap, opportunity gap, funding gap, or whatever you want to call the gap between the kids who have and those kids who have not.

Instead of the dreaded Fundraising word being associated with PTA, let’s get back to our roots and put Advocacy first.