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Shawn Vestal: Hollow ring to education funding talk

School has started, just in time to ride the wave of our collective political pretense: Education is our top priority.

That’s certainly the phrase to which everyone pays lip service. It’s certainly ingrained, admirably, in Washington’s Constitution. It’s surely something everyone in politics says, especially now that the state Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to live up to its constitutional responsibility to provide “ample” funds for schools.

But in this arena, as in all others, we do not reveal our priorities by what we say. We reveal them by what we do. We pay allegiance to our true priorities by paying for them; you can tell a fake priority by the vigor with which we try to spend less on it.

The state of Washington pays less than half the cost of educating our children, according to an evaluation by the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools; making up the shortfall has become a district-by-district game of rich-kid/poor-kid. The two candidates for governor are engaged in a battle to see who can stand more firmly in favor of spending billions more on education while never, ever raising taxes. Which is really our top priority. Meanwhile, cultural resentment of schools – which thrives underneath our near-universal claim to prize education – simmers along, enshrining the idea that public education is profligate, wasteful, failing.

Perhaps you’ve heard politicians arguing that our per-student spending is lavish. Possibly you’ve been told that trimming painless administrative fat would solve every budgetary problem there is, or that new schools are excessively grandiose, or that firing union-protected bad teachers quickly will produce excellent teachers to take their overpaid places. Golden-age thinking thrives – we all remember our perfectly adequate educations, our crumbling old schools, our sternly unforgiving teachers, our austere glory days.

“Everybody is an expert in education,” said Tom Ahearne, the Seattle attorney who won the landmark McCleary decision before the state Supreme Court. “We all went to school, right? So we all think we know what needs to be done.”

And because the numbers are large, it’s easy to see them as excessive. We spend $10,013 per student in Washington; this is commonly cited as an example of our wastrel approach to education.

Ahearne says this is because most of us don’t understand how expensive it is to educate kids in this day and age. I would say it’s also because our “priority” is not really our priority. When we truly want excellence in something – say, a college football team – we spend money on it. Private schools, which large majorities of Americans believe are better than public ones, charge an average of $22,000 a year, according to the National Association of Independent Schools.

Here are some figures about just how much money we do, and do not, throw at education in Washington:

• According to its own studies, the state has underfunded education by between $7.5 billion and $10.1 billion per biennium. The gubernatorial candidates suggest we’ll find this money in the budget; to get an idea of what that will be like, consider that it’s similar to the size of the wrenching budget cuts we’ve made in recent sessions – if you liked that, you’ll love this.

• Remember that outrageous per-student cost – $10,013? This is around $300 per pupil less than it was in the previous biennium, according to reports by the volunteer group Funding Washington Schools. It’s about $1,000 below the national average.

• We increased per-student spending from 1994 to 2010 by 75 percent, well above the rate of inflation. But state spending on schools has been stuck at around $13 billion for the past three bienniums, the group’s reports show. Especially in recent years, the increases came primarily from local levies.

• The statewide average annual salary for teachers in 2011-’12 is $64,512, according to the Funding Washington Schools report. This includes a base salary, which is below the national average, and supplemental pay. A starting teacher makes around $34,000.

• Sixty-one percent of school spending went into teaching; 5.8 percent went to building administration; 5.7 percent went into central administration.

• Speaking of administrative salaries – the grand shibboleth of school resentment, next to teachers unions – they are ample at the top. Spokane’s incoming superintendent will make $240,000, a not-uncommon figure. It would be fine with me if we paid them less – we are experiencing a tsunami of overvaluing bosses and undervaluing workers all across the culture – and yet the cost of these positions is a small part of a big picture.

Our state constitution does not call for us to adequately fund education, or appropriately fund it, or do a pretty good job of funding it. It insists that we make “ample provision” for everyone.

The constitution requires us to throw money at education.

Now we’ll see how we do that, given that lots of us don’t accept that we should. Gov. Chris Gregoire has made it clear to her would-be successors that new taxes are needed to meet this obligation, and, of course, she’s being ignored.

Ahearne thinks the issue is a “red herring.”

“Our state constitution requires the state to amply fund the education of all kids,” he said. “You do not need to raise a single penny of taxes to obey the constitution.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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