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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Students would benefit from smarter funding

Optimism about a final basic-education-funding solution is on the rise now that “Showdown at Levy Cliff” has been resolved without anyone being shoved off the ledge.

That drama was put into motion – slow motion – last year when the state Legislature pushed a final basic education solution into this session. That meant the levy lid lift would expire before the state had a basic education funding plan. The “lid lift” refers to a temporary reprieve granted local school districts so they could raise more money from local property taxes while waiting for the state to step up to its constitutional duty. That reprieve was set to expire in 2018. School districts are planning their 2018 budgets this spring.

But the nightmare ended on Thursday when the Legislature passed a one-year extension after two months of haggling. This compromise raises hopes that the two sides can ultimately forge a solution would satisfy the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on education finance.

But rather than just solve McCleary, we hope lawmakers also take steps to improve the educational system. The fact is, they can rearrange school funding to meet their constitutional mandate without making schools better.

This is a huge opportunity to do much more. Let’s take just one example:

One of the systemic problems is the opaque way education dollars are allocated. The state is aware of the chronic achievement gap between low-income and minority students and the rest. It knows of the extra challenges facing English language learners. It knows of students in need of non-academic support, because of the emotional trauma they face at home.

But in allocating money, the state also looks at a rigid class-size formula and the staff mix at schools. Students in low-income schools have, on average, younger teachers with lower salaries, and they see higher teacher turnover. Those schools may get less money, even though they have more high-need students.

A smarter system would distribute the teaching talent more equitably, and it would find a way to reward effective teachers who stay at hard-to-staff schools. It would prioritize specific problem areas and fund accordingly. For instance, the Learning Assistance Program, designed to help students who are performing below grade level, would get a lot more money.

A coalition of organizations has coalesced around a student-centered approach. The Campaign for Student Success includes such education advocacy stalwarts as the League of Education Voters and Stand For Children. The campaign also includes advocates of students of color, special-needs children, rural students and others who do not have equal opportunities.

A student-centered model would distribute dollars where they are needed most. It would give disadvantaged children more pathways to success. It would also boost gifted students, who need more challenges.

Lawmakers have injected billions of new dollars into education in recent years. They are about to add a lot more. They should make sure that money will make a difference in the lives of students.