In education, we're getting increments, not excellence

Fundamental questions remain even after a judge rules the state isn't fully funding K-12 education: What should our schools aspire to, and how can we pay for improvement? We'll have to think big.
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Is it possible to fully fund the state's public schools?

Fundamental questions remain even after a judge rules the state isn't fully funding K-12 education: What should our schools aspire to, and how can we pay for improvement? We'll have to think big.

Let'ꀙs suppose that after the state exhausts all its likely appeals, the judgment of the courts remains what Superior Court Judge John Erlick determined last month: the State of Washington is failing in its 'ꀜparamount duty'ꀦ to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders'ꀝ — that is, adequately fund K-12 education.

Where do we go from there?

Well, let'ꀙs further suppose that the legislature honestly tackles the problem. Quite a few legislators, led by Ross Hunter (D-Bellevue) among others, will make the effort. They'ꀙve already blazed a trail with last year'ꀙs education reform bill (HB 2261), notable for its 'ꀜto be funded later'ꀝ approach, the only condition under which a coalition for the bill could be assembled. (Hunter says on his blog that the legislative study leading up to HB 2261 shows that full funding for K-12 might be as much as 40 percent above today'ꀙs levels.) The Erlick decision should at least strengthen the reformers'ꀙ hand.

In that case, what would success look like?

Sadly, it'ꀙs likely to look a lot like the K-12 system we have now unless fundamental questions are addressed — questions that go beyond what Erlick meant by 'ꀜample provision for the education of all the children,'ꀝ and beyond the hopes of HB 2261, even assuming the legislature doesn'ꀙt gum it into mush trying to make it real over the next half-dozen sessions. In other words, arguments about the level of funding for this or that educational activity, the questions raised by the lawsuit, are not going to be arguments about what should be done to improve public schools; they'ꀙre going to be arguments about how much more, if any, the state can afford to pay for what they'ꀙre already doing.

Of course, more funding for public schools even as they are is worth fighting for, and in a post-recession world even without tax-structure changes there might be money to strengthen the basics. The most likely victories will be more money for high schools to pay for the six periods of instruction needed to meet the state Board of Education'ꀙs proposed CORE 24 graduation requirement (the state pays for only five now), and state funding for all-day kindergarten (only a half-day is supported now). Both of these deficiencies are typically made up for with voter-dependent local property tax levies.

But beyond these things, which are the low-hanging fruit, the going gets tough. It'ꀙs clear that even in good times the state'ꀙs tax structure can'ꀙt 'ꀜamply'ꀝ supply the needs of education. And in the current recession, we'ꀙre seeing that the system can'ꀙt manage the level of services we want elsewhere, either. Every recession has this impact, though not as severe. But the result is clear: Better, stable K-12 funding can'ꀙt be guaranteed in competition with other general fund needs and the demands of other political constituencies.

That means the underlying question, whether driven by the Erlick decision or not, is whether the legislature can find dedicated funding for K-12 education in addition to the current approximately 40 percent share of the general fund. That means new taxes, or a radical restructuring of existing taxes supporting education.

It'ꀙs not quite impossible.

In current law, the state provides what are called 'ꀜlevy equalization'ꀝ funds to help small, mostly suburban and rural school districts where the tax base is so small that without help the levy rate would be crippling to local taxpayers. For example, Seattle'ꀙs school levy tax burden is about $2 per $1,000 of assessed value (the lowest in King County), thanks to the value of downtown office buildings and industrial properties. Imagine the tax rate without the assist from the city'ꀙs commercial tax base. What equalization does is provide state funds for communities whose tax base is insufficient to support their schools. And it'ꀙs not a freebie. Local voters must approve a levy at a certain level to qualify for the state funds.

So basically, K-12 currently has two sources of money: the state general fund (mostly from sales, B&O, and property taxes) and locally voted property taxes. It'ꀙs from the latter — or as a replacement for local levies, really — where some faint hope for increased K-12 revenue may arise. Suppose the legislature proposed to end local levies and replace them with a statewide dedicated 'ꀜschool tax'ꀝ on property that would raise at least as much money as all school levies are allowed to raise now. Property taxes in Seattle would go up. In communities with small tax bases, they would go down. The money would be distributed by the state based on enrollment, the way most state school funding is currently doled out.

Of course, this is fantasy, or nearly so, given the constitutional and legislative hurdles facing new tax structures, not to mention Tim Eyman'ꀙs willingness to pounce on behalf of the know-nothing-and-don'ꀙt-care folks. But is it really a greater fantasy than any other proposal that would cement foundational funding for our K-12 schools — as the constitution in its ideal world requires?

Then there are the other issues, the ones that go beyond better support for what schools are doing now. To mention only two: What should be the state'ꀙs role in Pre-K education, and how should we go about improving teaching? There'ꀙs no missing the consensus that better Pre-K programs, especially for the children of low-income families, is essential to closing the achievement gap that'ꀙs contributing so alarmingly to social stratification in this country. But can we fund it?

There'ꀙs also a tremendous consensus right now that whatever else is going on, the surest contributor to student success is an excellent teacher in the classroom. The corollary, of course, is the (mostly tacit) admission that this is too often not the case. As a result, programs for teacher 'ꀜprofessional development'ꀝ abound. These days, practically every school district is investing in some kind of training, sometimes several kinds, for its teachers. It'ꀙs important and mostly helpful, but this is not exactly the kind of 'ꀜcontinuing education'ꀝ you find in other professions. Underlying most teacher professional development is the unspoken assumption that there is something here, somewhere, that if we could just get everyone to do it, there would be lots more excellent teachers, there would be huge and noticeable improvement. It'ꀙs a search for the holy grail. But all we'ꀙre going to get is increments, not excellence.

Almost as unrealistic in the pursuit of excellence is another option, one pretty much ruled out by current and foreseeable limits on school funding, not to mention labor agreements. It might work, though, by increasing teaching'ꀙs competitiveness and status relative to other professions: dramatically increase teacher pay. Raises of $20,000 to $30,000 above current levels would be in order. But there'ꀙd have to be a deal. Teachers accepting the raise would have to agree to serve at will. That is, they would be subject to year-end layoff for poor performance. (There might be options such as a half-year'ꀙs automatic severance built into this system, and changes in the hiring and firing of principals, as well.)

Such suggestions are only examples among a long list of reforms that that might make K-12 schools better and improve the outcomes for students, perhaps dramatically. But they and other options aren'ꀙt necessarily part of what'ꀙs now included in 'ꀜbasic education.'ꀝ Nor does Judge Erlick'ꀙs decision require real changes in the tax structure. That'ꀙs why even full legal affirmation of his decision isn'ꀙt likely to produce much change in our schools.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.