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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Finding a way to compare teacher pay, school funding tough, consultants say

OLYMPIA – Determining how much the state pays public school teachers now, and how much it should pay them in the future, is a complicated task, consultants told a special legislative panel Tuesday.

But while lawmakers are waiting for a model that will help them equalize teacher pay and school funding throughout Washington’s 299 school districts, parents, school officials and even a Seattle-area fourth grader said they were losing patience with the long delays at providing adequate state money to public schools. 

“I don’t think I should have to be patient for something that’s right,” Asher Ravona, a student at Cascadia Elementary School in Wallingford, told the Education Funding Task Force, which includes Democrats and Republicans from both chambers. 

If he saw someone bullying another student on the playground, they wouldn’t tell him to be patient, Ravona said, they’d want him to tell a teacher right away. But the state is asking parents and students to be patient in schools that don’t have adequate books, supplies, qualified teachers, classroom space or even safe drinking water, he said.

A key part of determining what the state must pay for what’s known as “basic education” is tied to salaries for teachers and other employees of the school districts. By law, the state is responsible for sending the districts enough money to cover basic education programs and services the Legislature mandates.

That’s the crux of a long-running Supreme Court case in which the Legislature has been ordered to come up with a plan to provide adequate money for the state’s public schools by 2018. The latest hearing on whether lawmakers have complied with that order, and can get out from under a $100,000 per day fine for contempt, is set for Wednesday morning.

The question of pay is complicated because each district negotiates with its teachers, and many pay extra for “enhancements”, or programs not required by the state as essential but important to the district, and some supplement the basic pay for teachers and other staff because of wage agreements in labor contracts.

Consultants are trying to build a salary model that accounts for the different economic, demographic and geographic changes among the districts. They also want to compare public school salaries with pay in the private sector.

That’s relatively easy for custodians and some supervisory jobs but difficult for classroom teachers, who don’t have a comparable job in private business, consultants told the committee. They are comparing them to registered nurses, accountants and architects, who have similar training and job duties. 

That brought some criticism from task force members. Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said his wife is a nurse and he doesn’t see many comparisons between the two jobs.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, objected to comparing the pay for teachers with nurses, another job traditionally held by women with pay that may not be comparable to other medical professions with similar responsibilities. That comparison could leave the study open to criticism, she said. 

Consultants said they were still making adjustments to the model that shows how much districts pay and where the money comes from. They are expected to have a final report by mid November.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.