School districts around Washington are adjusting to the new state model for funding basic education and all that it means. Last summer, the state Legislature increased its share to shoulder the cost of basic education and equitably support those needs among the state’s 295 districts. Simultaneously, it significantly reduced the amount districts may collect in their local levies as an offset to the increased state funding.
In a nutshell, this was the Legislature’s answer to the McCleary litigation. The Legislature believes its work is finished; we disagree.
Increasing state funding while decreasing local levy lids had very different impacts to school districts depending on the location. For some, like Spokane, it brought much-needed relief to taxpayers who had paid a large portion of the basic education expense from local levy money. However, it also cut in half the dollars we receive from the levy.
This would have worked if the state had actually covered basic needs with its funding model; it did not.
Families across the state expect districts to provide special education that is required by federal law. In addition, school nurses, safety officers and mental health resources at an adequate, equitable level are also necessary so all students can safely benefit from their time at school. In Spokane Public Schools, the state funds only five full-time nurses, 58 counselors, six safety officers, one psychologist and zero mental health therapists to meet the needs of more than 30,000 students in 55 buildings.
The new funding model covers about one-third of the cost of these critical needs. Local levy dollars pay for $7million of the special education services due to inadequate funding by the federal government for the services required by law. Our local levy pays for an additional 28 nurses, 85 guidance counselors, 17 safety officers, 27 special education psychologists and 44 mental health therapists to meet the basic student needs.
This new state funding model leaves the expense of basic student needs to local levies, which is exactly what McCleary was supposed to fix. As a result, districts are making tough funding choices that are re-creating the very inequities the Legislature took steps to eliminate last summer.
State law defines minimum essential academic learning requirements, including supplemental instructional support and services for students who are not meeting academic standards. It summarizes the requirements as “the opportunity for an appropriate education at public expense” to all students.
It is a difficult challenge. The state budget office estimates a current shortfall of more than $4 billion for K-12 education. Until these basic needs are properly funded by the state, we should not rely on our local taxpayers to cover the state’s shortfall.
Leaning on local levies to close that gap will quickly tilt the funding burden back out of balance and eliminate progress toward our state constitutional mandate, which makes provision of basic education the paramount duty of the state. Here’s why. Five cents per thousand in Seattle generates more than $11 million, far more than the same five cents per thousand in Spokane ($995,000) or Cheney ($195,000), due to a steep difference in property values and tax base. The resulting sizable difference in resources will quickly lead back to the imbalance.
Legislation passed in 2009 mandates “that no new requirements shall be implemented without associated funding,” according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which further states that “programs shall be fully funded by the 2018-19 school year.” Yet the Legislature has also mandated class size reductions at the kindergarten through third-grade levels and is poised to pass on significant new costs to local districts with a shift to a statewide health plan, referred to as SEBB.
Much work remains at the state level to adequately and equitably fund special education, nursing, safety and security, and mental health. All are critical components to delivering the uniform access to quality instruction to all students as envisioned by the Legislature.
Levies are intended to cover enrichment – programs above and beyond the basic needs, including, according to the Legislature, “additional instruction or providing additional services, programs, or activities that the school district determines to be appropriate for the education of the school district students.”
Special education, health and safety are not enrichment, they are basic needs. Public education is a vital service and right of students statewide. The Legislature acknowledges as much, writing into the law that it “is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety” of communities across the state.
We ask that the Legislature finish the job it started by fully funding basic education, including special education, safety and health needs that are vital to every student in the state.
Shelley Redinger, superintendent, Spokane Public Schools
Sue Chapin, board president
Jerrall Haynes, board vice president
Deana Brower, board member
Brian Newberry, board member
Mike Wiser, board member
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