The Education Funding Shortfall
For 40 years, Washington’s public school funding has been undermined by state government cutbacks, band-aid solutions, budget tricks, unfunded voter mandates, and indifference to student, parent, and teacher concerns. The State still does not fund what our K-12 students actually need.
A BROKEN AND UNSUSTAINABLE SYSTEM
Today, Washington State’s school districts are still forced to make up the education funding gap with local levies and asking parents and teachers to reach into their own pockets. As the situation grows worse, fewer communities are able to fund their schools, and the system becomes less sustainable and less equitable with each passing school year.
OUR STATE IS FAILING OUR KIDS
In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the McCleary case that state government had failed its paramount constitutional duty to fully fund basic education for our children. They ordered the State to come up with a plan to fix it, determine the amount of money needed, and then fully fund basic education by the 2017-2018 school year.
In 2017 the legislature passed a funding deal that they claimed solves the problem. They were wrong. It solved nothing, and in fact made matters much worse.
Legislators pursued a levy swipe: a strategy of using the McCleary case to increase state property taxes, while at the same time putting a cap on local public school levies. The court order did not require any limits on local levies, but Republicans demanded them and Democrats caved. The state's largest corporations and the Seattle Times’ editorial board supported this plan, even though it meant districts like Seattle and Tacoma would lose tens of millions of essential dollars each year.
The legislature also changed that way the state pays districts for teacher salaries in order to keep wages down. The “average” teacher-pay formula they adopted punishes districts that hire experienced teachers by not paying the full teachers’ salaries. One Washington school district superintendent is concerned that this formula encourages age discrimination by favoring the hiring of less-experienced—and often, younger—educators. This new formula was part of a political deal, and it harms numerous school districts—both large and small.
In 2017, Republicans threatened to shut down the government unless Democrats agreed to these proposals, and Democrats capitulated, after some minor modifications were made. Therefore, the legislature's 2017 education funding plan was not designed with the needs of our children in mind. It was a compromise between Republicans and Democrats designed to keep taxes low.
THE STATE RIGGED THE DEFINITION OF "BASIC EDUCATION"
One part of this flawed deal was that the state defined "basic education" in an absurdly narrow way that does not come anywhere close to meeting our public schools’ needs. For example, under the state's definition, school districts across the state don't receive funding to have a nurse at every school.
Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court let the legislature get away with this absurdly and unrealistically narrow definition.
As a result, districts still do not have enough money from the state for classroom basics, including fair teacher salaries, textbooks, nurses, counselors, and more. Many of the items that parents and teachers would consider as "basic" are still unfunded, or partially funded.
THE SHAMEFUL STATUS QUO
This is what the funding crisis looks like to parents, children and their teachers who live and breathe it every school day: overcrowded classrooms … lack of basic textbooks and essential learning materials … slow erosion of arts, music, theatre and sports programs … unsafe buildings … overwhelmed teachers … an endless cycle of scrambling to make up the difference. The worst consequence may be that too many have come to accept to the shameful status quo of the K-12 funding shortfall.
The state's failure to fully fund our schools leaves behind too many children in too many communities. The result is that children aren't getting the same high quality education all over the state. Students in high-poverty schools, which disproportionally include communities of color and 1st-generation families, still aren't getting the support they need to catch up in graduation rates, college enrollment, personal safety and health.
Not every problem can be solved by education funding alone. Other factors contribute and the social and economic dynamics are complex. But perhaps no action can make as big a difference now for the future of Washington’s children as fully funding public schools.
WE NEED NEW REVENUE
Because of its size, the funding shortfall can’t be fixed by budget cuts alone — that would devastate vital state services like higher education, long-term and mental health care, and public safety. Second, as the Court ruled, funding basic education is a state government responsibility, so it's up to the state to solve this. We need new revenue — but not just any revenue. To ensure we don’t get into this funding mess again, it must be:
- Sufficient — enough to fund basic education without harming other vital state services.
- Sustainable — insulated from the ups and downs of the economy.
- Fair — everyone pays her or his fair share, unlike our current system where those with the most pay less than their fair share, while the rest of us pay more.
- Accountable — new revenues will be solely dedicated to funding basic education.
Fixing our revenue system to fund our public schools could make our tax system more fair for everybody.