This was supposed to be the year for schools.
After years of struggling with an increasingly inadequate and complex system of funding education – “system” is perhaps too charitable a word for what one lawmaker recently termed “an accumulation of patches” – the governor and Legislature in early 2007 assembled a task force to consider how much is really needed, and for what.
Remember 2007? Retailers, restaurants, software makers and other industries were adding jobs. Consumers were spending. The state had a budget surplus.
And Olympia was under the gun: A coalition of school districts and other organizations filed a lawsuit that January, making a case that the state was failing to live up to its legal obligation to fully fund basic education. Among the 70-some organizations that are now part of that lawsuit is Spokane Public Schools.
A committee led by the governor had just completed an 18-month look at education and came back with recommendations for improvements, some of which were approved by the Legislature without full funding.
Everyone from the governor to key legislators promised that the report from the Joint Task Force on Basic Education Finance would not wind up on a shelf like so many others.
“I think all the cosmic tumblers are lining up for this to finally come together and decide how we’re going to pay for this educational system in a way that makes more sense,” task force member Laurie Dolan, a former Spokane educator and adviser to the governor, said at the time.
Earlier this month, the task force released its final report. As nearly everyone expected, it calls for big changes and billions in increased education spending, to be infused over six years.
And it couldn’t come at a worse time.
“There’s been very little hoopla or fanfare,” said Jim Kowalkowski, a task force member and superintendent of the Davenport School District. “The momentum that most of us who work in education were hoping would spring out of this has stalled.”
Facing a two-year state shortfall now predicted to top $7 billion, Gov. Chris Gregoire released a proposed budget in December that includes cuts to every state agency, including the elimination of cost-of-living increases for teachers and reducing money earmarked for reducing class sizes.
The task force, acknowledging the budget crisis, tacked on a last-minute statement to its report, asking that at the very least, current funding be preserved.
But individual task force members are seeking more.
A proposal from the Full Funding Coalition, which Kowalkowski sponsored as a minority report, calls for spending $1.2 billion more than is now budgeted for the next two years. State Rep. Glenn Anderson filed his own minority report, boosting that to $2 billion over the current budget.
That, Anderson notes, would mean cutting other state functions – including higher education – by 30 percent to 40 percent, rather than an average of 20 percent, as proposed by the governor. He concedes that’d be politically painful.
Task force chairman Dan Grimm suggested several new taxes in his own minority report, from applying the sales tax to services to forming taxing districts that would take over some of the responsibility for funding community colleges, thereby freeing up more money for school districts.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit launched in 2007 hangs over the state, with court action scheduled to begin on June 1, said Mike Blair, superintendent of the Chimacum School District.
“We’ll also monitor how the Legislature treats the recommendation of the task force,” said Blair, president of the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, the coalition suing the state.
The lawsuit hinges on wording in the Washington State Constitution that is unlike any other state’s. Written when one-room schoolhouses were common, the 1898 document calls education “the paramount duty of the state.”
The Seattle School District used that as the basis of a 1976 lawsuit. The state Supreme Court ruled two years later that it was unconstitutional to force schools to rely on local levies to fund basic education. That led to big increases in state funding, as well as legislation limiting how much districts could seek in local levies.
Since then, the funding formulas have remained largely unchanged, despite big changes in what’s expected of schools – including the 1993 reform package that led to creation of the WASL. And school districts have had an increasingly difficult time paying the bills.
The mounting problems prompted the Legislature in 2005 to create Washington Learns, a study of the state education system that called for further investments, including the creation of the state’s Department of Early Learning and a call for all-day kindergarten.
Left unanswered by Washington Learns was the question that’s plagued lawmakers and educators in recent years. In the 21st century, what exactly is this “basic” education that the court said the state is constitutionally obligated to provide?
The task force was charged with answering that question, as part of its look at school funding. Among other things, it concluded that basic education should include:
•Requiring a specific mix of high school courses and 24 credits for graduation, as recommended last year by the state Board of Education. Most districts already require more than the current state minimum of 19 credits, but without state funding for the extra classrooms, teachers and materials that requires. Educators have said it’s a $1 billion expense.
•Preschool for children from low-income families. The Legislature had directed the Department of Early Learning to propose just such a plan by next December, but dropped the idea in response to the budget crisis.
It would cost an estimated $126 million a year, assuming 40 percent of eligible children were enrolled in the voluntary program, the task force stated.
•“Specialized instruction for English language learners and students with disabilities, and extra time and teaching for struggling students.” The state funds such programs, but not fully.
Programs for gifted students would be considered an “enhancement to basic education,” with the task force recommending funding for up to 3 percent of a district’s students.
In addition to sharpening the definition of basic education, the task force calls for changing the way teachers are compensated and promoted.
It questions whether postgraduate degrees – the traditional route for pay raises – really makes for better teachers, recommending instead that raises be based on teacher performance, as determined by a board of “master teachers.”
It recommends staff bonuses at schools where students meet certain performance standards. And it recommends bonuses for teachers in certain hard-to-fill subjects, such as math, science and special ed.
Kowalkowski, who spoke on the matter Thursday before the Senate’s Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, hopes legislators this year will pass bills laying the groundwork for future changes, even if they delay funding for a couple of years.
“There are many, many details that need to be worked out,” he said.