Education Funding

Washington State Moves Toward Overhaul of K-12

By Katie Ash — May 15, 2009 5 min read
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Lawmakers in Washington state recently passed a bill designed to overhaul the public education system by 2018 and redefine “basic education” for the first time in the state since 1979.

During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers also voted to cut close to $1 billion in education funding for fiscal 2009.

Over a period of eight years, starting in 2011, House Bill 2261 would enact these steps:

• Increase the number of high school credits needed to graduate from 19 to 24;

• Provide all-day kindergarten for all children;

• Extend the school year by 80 hours for grades 7-12;

• Increase the number of teacher professional-development days;

• Establish a new data system to track student and teacher performance; and

• Set up working groups to examine new mechanisms for distributing funds to school districts as well as plans for performance-based compensation for teachers.

The bill, which is awaiting the signature of Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat who was expected to support it, also would establish early-education programs for youngsters deemed at risk and would include gifted education in the definition of basic education.

“This is a road map to the future,” said Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction. “You can’t build a house until you have the plans to build it.”

The bill passed the Senate on April 16 by a 26-23 vote, and the House voted to concur with Senate amendments and pass the bill on April 20 by a 67-31 vote.

HB 2261 received widespread support from the education community, including the Washington State PTA, Mr. Dorn, and the League of Education Voters, a Seattle-based grassroots network of education advocates in the state. But it was opposed by the state teachers’ union, the 82,000-member Washington Education Association.

“Unfortunately, I think that this session we’re going to look back on as a heartbreaking failure for public education,” said Mary K. Lindquist, the president of the National Education Association affiliate. “[Legislators] passed this bill with some broad general direction about how to overhaul K-12 education, mainly by focusing on teacher issues, and they came up with absolutely no funding.”

But Rep. Pat Sullivan, a Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, believes that the measure would hold the legislature even more accountable for funding than the current system by redefining “basic education,” for which the state constitution requires “ample” funding by the state government.

“This is a legislative-accountability program,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Had we done this years ago, K-12 education would have been much better off” during this year’s budget cuts, since the constitution legally requires the state government to fully fund basic education.

Paying for the Plan

Until the details of the bill are worked out by the working groups that it creates, it is difficult to know how much money will be required to fund the new system.

But Sen. Fred Jarrett, a Democrat and a member of the Basic Education Finance Task Force that made the recommendations on which HB 2261 is based, estimated that it would require an extra $3 billion in education spending per year.

He said he was not concerned about the ability of the state to come up with the money when it is time for the proposed new system to be implemented.

“We spend about 40 percent of our budget on K-12 education,” Sen. Jarrett said. “Most states are closer to 50 percent. If they can do it, why can’t we?”

But Sen. Curtis King, a Republican and a member of the Senate’s early learning and K-12 education committee, did not vote for the bill precisely because of concerns about how it would be funded.

Reshaping Education

A bill passed in Washington state would redefine “basic education” that must receive “ample” financing under the state constitution. Among the changes to be implemented by 2018:

• High school graduation requirements increased 24 credits from 19.

• Full-time kindergarten for all children.

• More teacher professional-development days.

• 80 extra instructional hours added to the academic year for 7th to 12th graders.

• New work groups that would evaluate the way funds are distributed to school districts and plans for tying part of teachers’ salaries to performance.

Source: Washington State Legislature

“How can you realistically say that on one hand we’re going to redefine education and we’re going to include all these new areas as a part of our definition, but we can’t fund what we’re doing now?” he said. “Until that question [of how to fund the bill] has been resolved, it seems to me that all we’re doing is making promises that at this point we can’t keep.”

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, a Democrat and the chairwoman of the Senate’s committee on early learning and K-12 education, voted for the bill, but expressed disappointment at the lack of support from the teachers’ union.

She pledged to include teacher input while the details of the plan are put together. “I am very committed to making sure we do honor and respect our teachers,” she said, “[and ensure] that they are part of the process.”

‘Unfunded Dreams’

The eight-year implementation period would help lawmakers find the means to fund the bill, said Sen. Eric Oemig, a Democrat. “There’s a lot of claims about false promise and unfunded dreams, but the reality is we took a very pragmatic approach to how we would phase in [these changes],” he said.

“We’ve got four years to figure out how to [pay for the bill],” he said, pointing out that although work on the overhaul would start in 2011, it would not have to be fully funded until 2018, the year it would be implemented.

Meanwhile, to close a $9 billion shortfall in this year’s state budget, the legislature, which adjourned on April 26, voted to cut about $1 billion from fiscal 2009 precollegiate education funding. Those cuts include two voter-approved initiatives—one that aims to reduce class sizes and fund extended-learning opportunities and early-learning programs, and another that provides cost-of-living salary adjustments for teachers.

In addition, the legislature approved a 14 percent increase in tuition for public four-year higher education institutions and a 7 percent tuition increase for community and technical colleges.

After the budget adjustments made for this fiscal year, the state will provide approximately $15.2 billion for K-12 education, out of a total $60 billion state budget, which does not include capital expenditures for the 2007-09 biennium.

According to the state budget passed by the legislature for 2009-11, which has yet to be acted on by Gov. Gregoire, $15.8 billion would be appropriated for K-12 education out of a total $62 billion state operating budget, which includes transportation but not capital funds.

State and federal funding make up about 84 percent of total K-12 funding in Washington state. Nearly 16 percent, or about $3 billion in additional funding for schools, is raised by local governments through levies.

“I’m disappointed that we had to make cuts to some of the programs and enhancements that we’ve made over the past four years,” said Mr. Dorn, the state schools chief, “but I think [the legislature] did the very best with what they had.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of Education Week as Washington State Moves Toward Overhaul of K-12


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