Civic Cocktail: A guide to Washington’s education funding debate

Susan Enfield, Highline School District Superintendent and former Seattle Public Schools Interim Superintendent. Credit: Seattle Public Schools

‘Tis the school enrollment season, during which parents and students try to gauge their chances at receiving the best education public money can buy. Should they stick to their neighborhood school or play the odds of being accepted to a school in another part of town? Should they move to Bellevue? Move to Shoreline? Go private?

Parents throughout our state can diligently tour schools, compare school “report cards” issued by the State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, try to enroll their kids in specialized programs or schools, follow their gut feelings or rely on the experiences of trusted friends. But in the end, there is only so much control a given school or school district has over the quality of our kids’ educations.

Now, more than ever, decisions that will impact your child’s education from pre-school through university are being made in Olympia.

Here’s some of what’s on the table:

In January 2012, the State Supreme Court determined that Washington had failed to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education. Following this determination, known as the McCleary decision, a joint task force on education funding was established by the Washington State legislature to figure out what it would take to remedy the situation. In its final report, issued last December, the task force estimated that it will take $1.4 billion in the next biennial budget cycle, and $4.5 billion by 2017-19 to fulfill the McLeary obligations.

Where will the money come from? That’s the billion dollar question.

On February 28, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that Initiative 1053, which required a supermajority vote in the legislature to raise new taxes or close tax loopholes, is unconstitutional, thus opening the door for revenue increases. Let the rhetoric and legislative wrangling begin.

The legislature’s deadline for passing bills out of their committee of origin has come and gone. Representatives in Olympia will consider a host of proposals on the education spectrum, including:  

  • Developing an integrated early learning system 
  • Tracking students’ “educational health”
  • Enabling automatic academic acceleration for students who meet grade level standards 
  • Fostering STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) literacy 
  • Providing professional development for teachers in support of the new teacher evaluation system and
  • A variety of measures geared towards closing the academic opportunity gap. 

They’ll also deliberate on the Joint Task Force’s phase-in implementation plan for the McLeary decision. 

Higher education funding is also under scrutiny. What does the future hold for the Guaranteed Education Tuition Program? Should higher education institutions be rewarded with financial performance incentives?

Our State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn says our opportunity gap remains too wide and we are in funding crisis mode. Our communities are grappling with the frequency and efficacy of standardized testing. In Seattle, union leaders and District administrators will soon come to the table to negotiate a new teachers’ contract. Our state high school graduation rates have improved slightly, but still hover at around 75 percent. Our businesses say they have to import qualified workers. And for better or for worse, charter schools will debut in our state.

Time for a cocktail; a civic cocktail, that is.

Dr. Susan Enfield served as vice-chair of the legislature’s Joint Task Force on Education Funding. She also currently serves as Superintendent of the Highline School District, whose vision is that every student graduates prepared for college, career and citizenship. Enfield previously served as Interim Superintendent of the Seattle School District and as that District’s Chief Academic Officer.

Bringing the funding conundrum perspective from Olympia, her experience running the state’s largest public school district and her goals for Highline schools, Dr. Enfield will serve as the catalyst for a civil, civic conversation about the future of education in Washington state.

We hope you’ll join us on Wednesday, March 6 to be a part of it.

If you go: Join Crosscut, City Club and the Seattle Channel Wednesday, March 6 at 5:30 p.m at Tom Douglas' Palace Ballroom for an audience-driven conversation about public education, the proposed SODO arena and other issues facing the Northwest. Reserve your spot here. 

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