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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Heidi Mitchell: How we fund schools as important as how much

By Heidi Mitchell For The Spokesman-Review

As the 2017 legislative session unfolds, parents like me are growing increasingly concerned about the future of education in Washington. I am a proud Gonzaga alumna and the mother of a student in public school in Spokane. The fact that we are not adequately or equitably funding education worries me deeply.

You might assume that parents in Spokane have widely different concerns from those in Western Washington, but the reality is there are few districts for which the current education funding structure works. Reports on Washington graduation rates have shown us that the current funding structure isn’t working for many rural, urban and lower-income school districts. There are clear winners and losers in how funding is allocated. And it shows.

One in 5 Washington students do not graduate from high school. For students of color or from rural or high-poverty communities, that number nearly doubles. Washington is ranked 41st in graduation rates even though we’re ranked in the middle of the pack for funding. The McCleary ruling exposed the need for increased funding for our schools; however, these numbers tell a more complicated story. It isn’t just money that matters. We must also consider what we fund and how we spend our education dollars. To address our alarming graduation rates, we need to go a step further than simply pushing dollars into a system that is clearly letting too many kids fall behind. Rather, we need resources to support programs that meaningfully help our kids advance and grow. It seems clear to me that how we allocate funding is just as important as how much we fund public education.

In Spokane, we’ve seen some progress that can serve as an early blueprint. We’ve witnessed effective district and high school leaders channel our dollars toward programs that work. Rogers High School, for example, has raised the bar by expanding course offerings to include many AP classes that prepare students for college. With roughly 78 percent of Rogers students receiving free or reduced-price lunch (indicating they live in low-income households), the school graduated 82 percent of its students in 2016, up from 60 percent in 2010. And in Shadle Park, a Boeing partnership has enabled students to get training for aerospace jobs.

Programs like Rogers’ and Shadle Park’s work, but they are too few and far between. Our state doesn’t prioritize investment in proven programs or the students who need them the most. Instead, we have a funding model that ends up rewarding schools in wealthier districts with more highly paid, experienced staff. In reality, all students in our state deserve highly talented leaders and teachers in their public schools.

Our current funding structure leaves many schools unable to pay for the basics, forced to pass levies to pay for teacher salaries. And if you can’t afford to hire enough good teachers to fill the classrooms, you’re also not likely to invest time and money in career and technical or dropout prevention programs.

The Legislature should listen to Campaign for Student Success, a coalition made up of parents like me and more than 30 organizations. We are calling for the Legislature to address the McCleary decision with two guiding principles.

First, we must change our allocation model to ensure that all communities are funded fairly, and second, we must direct more money into the grossly unfunded interventions designed to help students in greatest need. This means expanding support for the Learning Assistance Program, which currently helps fewer than half the kids it is designed to serve; funding interventions to help kids on the verge of dropping out; expanding access to career and technical training for all students; and channeling important resources to rural and high-poverty students.

The model that Campaign for Student Success is championing would effectively allocate resources to the Washington students with the greatest needs and ensure that dollars are spent appropriately.

So far, we’ve seen some good ideas on both sides of the aisle when it comes to rethinking how we invest in our children. Both the Senate and House put forth admirable budgets that put significant and much-needed funding into the K-12 system – but we can’t stop there. A real solution requires legislators to go one step further to create policies that drive those dollars toward real outcomes for our students.

As Democrats and Republicans try to meet in the middle, they cannot lose sight of this important part.

But what needs to be clear is this: our legislators can’t leave Olympia until they solve the problem of how to close our achievement gaps, increase graduation rates and help all kids thrive in and beyond their K-12 schooling years. This isn’t simply about money, it’s about our collective future as Washingtonians – a future that depends on every child and every community having the best chance to succeed.

Heidi Mitchell, of Spokane, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and a master’s degree from Gonzaga University.

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