The quandary about how to pay for school improvements

A court has ordered a plan to pay for better schools. But even as it tries to look ahead, the state is still trying to figure out details of what it is spending now.
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The state Supreme Court is trying to compel lawmakers to comply with its 2012 McCleary mandate to fully fund education.

A court has ordered a plan to pay for better schools. But even as it tries to look ahead, the state is still trying to figure out details of what it is spending now.

Next spring, you should be able to look up on the Internet your school district, its number of teachers, its teacher-to-student ratio, its total expense in teachers' salaries, and its cost per student.

As part of a court-mandated improvement in schools, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is scheduled to break down numerous nuts-and-bolts figures on all of Washington's school districts. The OSPI is supposed to have them all on a Web site by March 1, 2013 for any resident to be able to look up a school district to get a breakdown of its budget, state appropriations, plus student and staff numbers for that system. Then a person can compare his or her district with statistics for the other 294 districts. This Web site will be updated annually.

This is one part of Washington's crunching of numbers to see how much money it will need to meet the state Supreme Court's requirement —last January's McCleary decision — that the Legislature must sufficiently fund all of its constitutional obligation to fund basic education by 2017-2018. Legislative staff members briefed a task force Wednesday in Burien on what those actual requirements are.

The task force's job is to pin down how much actual money is needed and to recommend by Dec. 31 how the Legislature can raise the extra money.

The preliminary estimate is that an extra $1.2 billion will be needed in the 2013-2015 biennium to meet the McCleary mandate. In 2011-2013, The state's operations budget is $31 billion with K-12 education tallying $13.65 billion, or 44 percent of the overall budget.

Preliminary indications are that the state's overall budget in 2013-2015 may be $32.5 billion with a roughly $1 billion shortfall to fund that budget — all independent of the extra preliminary $1.2 billion McCleary deficit.

In 2010-2011, Washington with a population of roughly 6.83 million had 1.04 million students  in public schools, 72,690 in private schools, and 15,187 being home-schooled. The average teacher's salary in 2011 was $62,653, compared to an average of $42,048 in 1998 -- paid from a combination of state and local funds.

Gubernatorial candidates Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna both contend they can meet the McCleary requirements without raising taxes nor significantly cutting other programs  — which Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Office of Financial Management  say is wrong, citing the $1.2 billion preliminary estimate.  

Here are some baseline figures on where the Supreme Court's ruling is requiring the state to improve basic education:

  • Reducing the Teacher to student ratios in grades K-3, an age in which experts say fundamental learning needs to take place to produce results rippling into the higher grades. Right now the the ratio is 25.23 students per teacher in those grades. The 2011-13 budget calls for reducing that ratio to 1-to-24.1. The McCleary ruling orders that ratio to be reduced to 17 students in grades K-3 by 2017-2018.
  • Poverty-level schools get priority in that class-size reduction, with "poverty" defined as more than 50 percent of a school's students participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program.
  • Washington's current minimum number of credits to graduate high school will be gradually increased from 20 to 24. Right now, school districts have different numbers of credits to graduate, with the state average being 22. Increased costs will be tied to what extra courses are added.
  • The amount of instruction in grades 7-12 is supposed to reach 1,080 hours a year per student no sooner than 2014-2015. Now, Washington Office Financial Management believes the state average is roughly 1,000 instructional hours per student per school year.

Actually, that 1,000-hour figure is fuzzy. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction tried to survey all 295 school districts last year, but got responses only from 106. Of those 106, the average middle school student was instructed 1,074 hours a year, while the average high school student was instructed 1,076 hours annually.

At this time, the education funding task force is operating under the assumption that increasing from 1,000 hours per student annually to 1,080 hours per student annually would be an 8 percent increase in costs. School district are not currently required to report an official hours-per-year-per-student figure to the state.

Task force member Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw, said calculating the cost of adding extra hours will be more complicated than an 8 percent increase. She said it will depend on which courses are added, each district having teachers with different seniority and degrees to teach those extra hours, changes in the teacher-district contracts, and what extra classroom materials will be needed.

In addition, bilingual education has to be improved and better funded. In this programs students are taught in both their native languages and English to improve their language skills enough to enter the same classes as the majority of pupils.

In 2010-2011, 23,696 students entered the program, almost two-thirds in kindergarten. About 14,000 leave the program annually because their English skills have reached a mainstream level. However, there is the likelihood that these students might be behind their mainstream counterparts — most likely in reading, writing, math and science. Extra instruction has been mandated for the students who are behind in these subjects for up to two years after they graduate to mainstream classes in English.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8