A step-by-step guide to Washington’s school funding problems

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In early September, Seattle teachers encircled the schools where they normally run classrooms and picketed, wearing red shirts and chanting slogans. It took nearly a week to end the strike and restart classes as normal, four days after the start of the normal school year.

The strike was just the latest manifestation of the knots into which Washington has twisted its school finance system. Another is the fact that, right now, the state is paying $100,000 daily fines for its shortcomings in basic education.

For those of you who wonder what in the world just happened, or who want a quick refresher on how this system works—or is supposed to work, at least—we've put together a quick explainer, below. This is not likely going to be the last we'll see of Washington's school funding woes.

How are schools funded, anyway?

Dollars for schools in Washington come from two sources: state funds allocated by the Legislature, and local money raised through levies. According to Washington’s constitution, the state dollars are supposed to pay for a “basic” education. They get disbursed to school districts based on the number of teachers they need, the teachers’ experience level, and a variety of other factors. Local dollars are supposed to fill the space between a basic education and an ideal one, paying for extra art classes, classroom technology and other special programs. The definition of a basic education is laid out in state law; the most recent reform passed in 2009 and required substantial increases in education funding.

So what’s the problem?

During the recession, the state cut back in a lot of areas, but especially on the amount it paid out for cost-of-living increases (known by the cute acronym COLA). That left those in the hands of local school districts, which can exacerbate discrepancies between rich districts and poorer ones. As state funding stagnated, these levies made up more of districts’ budgets. Now, those levies, which were supposed to pay for “extras,” pay for a growing portion of teachers’ salaries, as well as for support staff and other things that arguably fall under the “basic” education definition. You can see the growing role that local funding plays in this graph:

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It’s worth noting that some experts say the problem, as it stands, actually runs far deeper than recession cuts. Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University’s Edunomics program says that the state’s funding problem really stems from how it disburses funds to schools. She says that the state should give out dollars based on students and student need—not based on the number of teachers. Many states do so, and more are joining them. For example, California switched to more of a student-tied funding model last year, under threat of court involvement.

Why is the Supreme Court involved?

The state Supreme Court got involved in 2012, when it ruled on a five-year-old court case filed by the McCleary family that alleged the state was not meeting its duty to pay for basic education. The court agreed with the family and directed the Legislature to find the funds to comply with the definition of basic education lawmakers had supposedly agreed on in 2009. But lawmakers have struggled to come up with the funds. Why that is depends on whom you ask: political divides, post-recession economic doldrums, competing demands—or, as Roza suggested, a fundamentally broken funding system.

This summer, the Legislature upped the amount of money getting pumped into the education system but it never reformed the system that caused the local disparities in the first place. So after three years of back-and-forth, the court stepped in and fined the state $100,000 a day until it reforms the system and further steps up its increases in funding of schools. The fines have been in effect since August 14 and will continue until legislators figure out a plan that satisfies the state Supreme Court.

Wait, what does that have to do with the Seattle strike?

The teachers had a list of demands, some of which related to Washington’s financial knot and some of them not: a guaranteed 30 minutes of recess, teacher input on standardized testing—and pay raises. The court has ordered that teacher salaries should come from state coffers; the state’s failure to provide sufficient funding for salaries is at least part of what sent Seattle teachers to the picket line. The Legislature had left it in the hands of districts to pay teachers a competitive wage, and the union says Seattle wasn’t doing that—especially as an influx of more affluent residents drove up housing prices. In the end, the district and union agreed to pay raises of 9.5 percent, whether the state ups its contribution or not. That guarantees that teachers will get paid more — and leaves room for the state to add on at some point.

Is anyone else dealing with this or is Washington unique?

Washington is definitely not alone. Of the 50 states, just five have dodged a court battle over school funding. In the past year, lawmakers, unions and courts in New York, Kansas, Texas and Colorado have been in defining battles over how to pay for education. We can learn from their struggles, though. Here, as elsewhere, school funding can also be a way to further ideological stances on things like lower or higher taxes, more or less union control, and more or less market-minded educational approaches. These issues are interwoven into the question of how much and in what form schools should get dollars. Finding solutions elsewhere has involved creativity, bipartisanship and a willingness to compromise—easy to say, hard to do.

So what’s next?

Well, the first order of business will be to pass a good-enough fix to lift the court-ordered fines. To do that, Gov. Jay Inslee would have to call a special session, the fourth of the year. So far, he has said he won’t do that until legislators and experts working outside of the session are close to having a viable plan. The earliest he has indicated he’ll call everyone back is November, which means a fix is still at least two months in the future. In the meantime, the state will keep paying $100,00 a day into a special fund for schools.

One unlikely alternative, put forward by Senate Republicans, is that legislators and the state decide that what they’ve done is good enough and simply defy the court’s orders and continue paying the fines. The majority seems committed to figuring out a way forward, however. When the Legislature does gather, the court has indicated it won’t accept incremental progress on the long overdue issue. So lawmakers will have to dream a little bigger than they have in the past—and perhaps look out at some of the other 45 states that have navigated similar waters.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Kate Schimel

Kate Schimel

Kate Schimel is a Seattle-based reporter covering education and the environment. She previously wrote for Chalkbeat Colorado, an education news startup, and is the co-author of a series of books on New York State history. Follow her on Twitter at @kateschimel.