The Education Funding Gap

The Education Funding Gap


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. We are left with a widening gap between what the State should fund and what our K-12 students actually receive.


Today, Washington State’s school districts are 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 close the gap, and the system becomes less sustainable and less equitable with each passing school year.


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. The Legislature came up with a plan, but it has been dragging its feet on funding, even though the Court is now fining the State $100,000 day for balking at its duty. The longer the State shirks its responsibility, the more expensive the solution, while our children continue to suffer the consequences. More on how we got into this mess here.


As of 2014, the State was only funding an average of 68.2% of basic education costs per student.1

For the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, the State has shortchanged Washington’s children by $3.8 billion! That gap does not even include funding for I-1351 (the voter-approved class-size reduction measure). This letter from State Superintendent Randy Dorn to Governor Inslee in December 2014 describes the level of funding that was required. Here is the detailed budget request. And this does not even include the funding needed (about $3 billion for the 2015-16 biennium) for school buildings.

By the 2017-18 school year, the State is short by $4 billion a year for operations costs (teachers and books, etc.) and another $2 billion is needed to build classrooms needed for K-3 class size reductions and all day kindergarten. (See this graph with detailed citations of the amounts promised in per student dollars. Washington has 1.088 million students as of October 2015.)

There also is no plan for full funding by 2017-18 school year as they promised. If the State doesn't close the gap by then, local school districts will have to continue relying on sources such as PTA funding, contributions and grants from foundations, municipal levies (e.g. Seattle’s Family and Eduction Levy), auctions and bake sales to make up the difference. That is, if they can — many communities have few or no options for making up the gap.


This is what the funding gap 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 gap:

The Per-Student Funding Gap

Washington ranks a woeful 40th in the nation in per-student funding — 20% below the national average and below states like Alabama and Mississippi. Vermont spends nearly double what we do per student.2

The Local Levy Gap

Levies cost local school districts $3.5 billion school districts per year — but they were only intended to only fund “enrichment programs” beyond the scope of basic education. The funding gap has forced districts to use levies to fund many basic education needs, like counselors, nurses, arts and music programs, books and supplies, teacher and staff salaries, disabilities programs, and maintenance. Statewide, local levies now cost a total of $3.5 billion per year3 — an average of nearly $3,200 per student!

The Class-Size Gap

Washington’s schoolchildren are crammed into some of the most-overcrowded classrooms in America. As a consequence, they lack the classrooms and personal attention they need to fully engage in learning and receive meaningful feedback from their teachers. In 2015, Washington classrooms ranked as the 4th-most crowded classrooms nationally.4

The Opportunity Gap

The funding gap leaves too many of our kids unprepared to compete for jobs in today’s economy. Over 22% of Washington kids don’t graduate, while only 39% are adequately prepared for college or careers.5 Increasing per-student spending has been shown to improve our children’s long-run prospects for educational achievement and future earning power.6

The Equity Gap

The funding gap leaves behind too many children in too many communities. The funding failure has widened the achievement gap between children in high-poverty neighborhoods, which disproportionally include communities of color and 1st-generation families, and children from communities with greater resources. Students in high-poverty schools lag behind in graduation rates, college enrollment, personal safety and health.7

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 closing the basic education funding gap.


By even conservative estimates, the gap between the current budget passed versus the budget we need is $1.5 billion in the 2015-216 school year. That gap is estimated to be another $2.3 billion for the 2016-2017 school year and $4 billion a year for 2017-18. No question that’s a lot of money — but that’s how much the State is failing our kids. More on the cost of closing the gap here.


Because of its size, the gap can’t be closed 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 relying on local levies must not be a part of the solution. 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 close the education funding gap could make our tax system more fair for everybody.