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Activist of the Month: Heidi Bennett

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for February: Heidi Bennett. Read more about her experience as a strong advocate for K-12 and Higher Education.

Heidi Bennett - League of Education Voters Activist of the Month Feb 2017

February Activist of the Month Heidi Bennett

Heidi Bennett is one of LEV’s most involved and dedicated key activists. She first entered the activism arena when her kids were in preschool, at the turn of the century. Her big question: to send her children to public or private school?

Heidi Googled LEV, and connected with Co-founder Lisa Macfarlane. She has been working with LEV ever since – for about 15 years. Heidi recalls Lisa talking about her own kids, saying, “No matter where you send your kids, all kids deserve a great public school education.”

When Heidi moved from New York to Seattle for a better way of life, she never imagined she would be sacrificing her kids’ education. Joining local PTA and then Seattle Council PTA, she began speaking to PTAs in the Seattle area about how Washington schools compare to those in New York and other states, and how they need to advocate for better schools and better outcomes.

In 2006, Heidi gave her first testimony at a Washington state Senate hearing, emphasizing that we deserve to do better for our kids. She was so persuasive that a key Senator suggested that she do the opening prayer for the Senate.

Heidi’s activism took on a life of its own. She became heavily involved in the push for simple majority for school levies and fought hard for the Basic Ed “It’s Basic” campaign with Governor Chris Gregoire. She’s been the Legislative VP of the Seattle Council PTSA, board member and presenter for the Seattle Schools First levy campaign, and several years as the Regional Legislative Chair for Washington State PTA. She has reached hundreds of parents with her “What’s up with WA State Education” presentations and several years ago delivered over 5,000 postcards to Washington state Legislators and the Governor during WSPTA Focus Day. Heidi has also served on several district task forces/committees for highly capable, capacity, and others.

Lately, Heidi continues to engage and educate parents with education panels and PTA talks on Basic Ed. Her most recent panel last week in North Seattle included both high school issues and state funding, and featured Representative Noel Frame, the Government Relations Director of the Association for Washington School Principals, the Legislative Chair of the Seattle Council PTSA, Seattle School District officials, and the principal of Ballard High School. Heidi has educated hundreds of parents on why they need to advocate.

Heidi’s newest passion is higher education. “We’re getting priced out of higher ed. It costs $80-to-$90,000 to send kids to a Washington state college when you include room and board,” she says. “As wages are flat, even the middle class is getting priced out of a bachelor’s degree at a public, state school.” She put higher education on the state PTA platform two years ago and again last fall. This year, she expanded post-secondary advocacy to include community and technical college (CTC) certificates, while continuing to support the College Bound and State Need grants, and making both 2- and 4-year degrees more accessible. Heidi adds, “We need a regional college in the Seattle area, something that offers comprehensive Bachelor’s degrees without having to spend residential costs, similar to Portland State.”

“I want to see an expansion of career counselors in high school, so all students are aware of the opportunities for both a traditional of 4-year college track and other pathways,” she says. “Kids just don’t know there are job-ready career paths by earning CTC certificates or Associate’s degrees. We need to promote these options too to both students and families, and remove the stigma from alternative paths.”

Heidi grew up on Long Island and is a first-generation college graduate. She finished her degree at night, working full-time. She says, “You can’t do that in Seattle – there are not enough opportunities to earn an affordable degree at night at a less-expensive public college. I understand the challenges.”. Professionally, she cut her teeth in marketing on Madison Avenue, earned her VP title, and then moved to Seattle where she was the Director of Client Services for a downtown agency. She started consulting to focus on family life, and is winding down that chapter.

Heidi’s kids are recent graduates of the Seattle School District. Her daughter graduated from Ballard High School and is now at the University of Victoria. Her son graduated in 2016 through Running Start, and is now a rising senior at the University of Washington.

Noting that 70 percent of all jobs in Washington state will soon require a post-secondary credential, Heidi says, “If we want growth in our economy, we need to increase the current rate of only 31 percent of our 9th graders earning some type of post-secondary attainment to over 70 percent. We need to educate parents and students that not all jobs will require a 4-year degree.” To that end, she began advocating for Career Start, which allows students to earn a career certificate while still in high school, similar to Running Start that focuses on AA degrees. “Kids need to know ALL their options,” she says, “And the state needs to make them affordable.”

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Statement on the 2015-2017 Budget

After one long legislative session (followed by three special sessions), Governor Inslee signed Washington’s 2015–2017 state budget into law late in the evening on June 30, averting a government shutdown by less than an hour. An unprecedented series of events ultimately delayed sine die until today, but with the true end of our historically long 2015 legislative session at hand, we take a moment to reflect.

What we see in this budget is a more comprehensive investment in education than at any other time in the state’s history. Through their strong investments in public education across the spectrum, early learning through postsecondary, the Legislature has given all Washington’s students more hope for their future.

The 2015 Legislative SessionThe League of Education Voters has long argued that a child’s education should be a continuum with seamless transitions from early learning through higher education. We have worked with partners around the state in pursuit of that vision, including with the Cradle through College Coalition. It is gratifying to see the Legislature following through with strategies and investments that support students at all ages. (more…)

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Local bond and levy elections raise $1.9B for schools

This February, in nearly 60 local bond and levy elections across the state, Washington voters sent a strong message of support to their local schools by approving 55 school levies, raising more than $817 million dollars for schools.

Sixteen of the 27 bonds passed, raising $1.11 billion for districts across the state. Unlike levies, the passing threshold for bonds is 60 percent. If a simple majority were the threshold, nine other bonds would have passed, raising an additional $694 million for school districts. A bill was introduced this session by Rep. Mia Gregorson to change the passing threshold for bonds to 50 percent, but it did not make it out of the House Education committee.
Of the 55 levies that passed, 44 were for maintenance and operations and raised $804 million total for districts across the state. Eleven of the 55 passed levies are capital levies, which raised more than $12 million for schools.

Eight of the levies passed thanks to simple majority, a 2007 voter-approved constitutional amendment supported by the League of Education Voters. Between 2008 and 2015, nearly $5 billion was raised for schools through local levies.
(more…)

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Washington voters pass $2.6 billion in taxes for education

You did not see that headline last week, but you should have.

You may have read reports about levies in a particular district or county, but there was precious little attention paid to what happened all across the state. What happened was that voters overwhelmingly supported their local schools and voted for $2.6 billion in taxes to support education.

Let’s say it again: Voters overwhelmingly supported their local schools and voted for $2.6 billion in taxes to support education.

Out of 295 school districts, 157 went to their local communities seeking support to the tune of over $2.7 billion dollars in property taxes. Out of the 157 school districts that put levies on the ballot, 152 of them passed. In a time where we hear that voters will not support revenue, the local election results stand in stark contrast to that narrative.

In most cases, local dollars make up around 25% of the total operating costs of a school district. We are a far cry from local levies being about the “extras” they were originally designed to provide. As the economic crises drags on, the importance of local levies has increased. Local communities have responded to that crisis with overwhelming support for their schools.

Simple Majority, the gift that keeps on giving
It seems odd, but Washington state has a fondness for requiring super majorities when it comes to revenue. It used to be that local schools had to receive more than 60% of the vote to secure a local operating levy. Thanks to Simple Majority (also known as I-4204, passed in 2007) we returned to the most basic of democratic principles, majority rules. That means that 51 levies representing $1.2 billion have passed because of Simple Majority. That is $1.2 billion to support the students in those districts that they otherwise would not have received.

Our support for majority rule extends to the state Legislature, where the law currently requires two-thirds majority to raise revenue. The I-1053 lawsuit, which we filed along with the Washington Education Association and other plaintiffs in October, will have its first hearing in March. We hope that the combination of the McCleary ruling and the eventual ruling on I-1053 will clear the way to fund our schools at the level they need, and local voters seem prepared to support.

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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.

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School Levy Elections Benefit from Simple Majority

Posted by Michael

Hundreds of school levy volunteers are breathing a sigh of relief today.

Last night’s levy results show that the education community’s victory in November is making a huge difference for thousands of students across the state.

While many communities continue to approve their levies at rates above the old 60 percent standard, a large number of levies passed thanks to the new 50 percent simple majority requirement.

School leaders, educators, parents and students in places like Kennewick, Ellensburg, and Centralia will not have to brace themselves for a costly and time consuming second levy attempt.  Instead, they can continue to focus on educating students.

We’ll be holding our breath for close elections around the state, especially in Thurston County where the North Thurston, Rochester and Yelm school districts are hovering just below 50 percent.  Late-arriving ballots do tend to favor school levy elections.

For bond elections, the supermajority requirement continues to thwart our schools.  Only two out of five bond proposals are passing as of Tuesday night.  In Lake Chelan, the bond is passing with just over 61 percent.  This shows that every vote is especially important for school bond elections.

While simple majority saved the day for many school districts, the League of Education Voters is confident school supporters will not take this election for granted.

And we’ve not lost sight on what’s at stake.

A large part of the success of our state’s students and schools comes from levy funding.  That’s because the state continues to NOT fully fund basic education services.

The League of Education Voters would like to see a new K-12 finance system adopted next year that fully funds basic education and returns levies to their intended purpose of funding school enrichment programs.

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