There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the
long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.
- John F. Kennedy
The Education Funding Task Force (EFTF) was created in the 2016 legislative session to develop proposals for addressing the school funding issues our state Supreme Court has ruled must be resolved by September 2018. Those who have followed the state’s decades-long series of education funding studies weren’t optimistic that the EFTF would be able to achieve in a few months what several much more in-depth studies haven’t resolved in the past. The problem has never been about the need for more information. It has always been about the Legislature finding the will to address the funding side of the equation.
Washington Learns was one of our more significant education studies conducted in recent years. Hundreds of hours were spent by those involved during the 16 month-review. Washington Learns was created by the Legislature in 2005 and Gov. Gregoire personally convened the 13-member steering committee that involved 75 citizens on three advisory committees. Their final report was submitted in November 2006 with great fanfare and optimism.
Since this month marks the 10th anniversary of Washington Learns, it seems worth reviewing what impact, if any, it had on Washington’s education system. To do that, we will utilize one of the recommendation from that report to benchmark Washington’s progress against seven other states referred to as the Global Challenge States (GCS). The final report provided the following rationale for that approach:
As we improve our education system to fit the new global economy, we cannot compare ourselves to mediocrity or settle for average. We propose a new benchmark to make sure that we remain competitive: the Global Challenge States. These states are the top eight performers on the New Economy Index. The index compares states on 21 indicators that measure how well they are positioned to compete in the new economy. (pg. 16)
The Washington Learns report compared Washington with the GCS on six education indicators. Half of those indicators were beyond the K-12 system. For the purpose of this review, we will examine the three metrics most pertinent to our public schools.
The first indicator used in that study was the percent of children enrolled in preschool. While this isn’t a K-12 measure, kindergarten readiness has a significant impact on the K-12 system. At the time of the Washington Learns report, Washington was last in that indicator among the eight comparison states.
The data in Figure 1 shows how Washington currently compares with the GCS in that area, as well as our national rank. This information is from a 2016 report entitled Is School Funding Fair, published by the Rutgers University Education Law Center. Based on this data, Washington hasn’t made any progress in this area in relation to the GCS, and we’re near the bottom when compared with the nation.
The next two tables summarize other relevant preschool data elements from the same 2016 report. Figure 2 show the percent of low-income students enrolled in preschool. Once again, Washington is last among the eight comparison states, and we are even lower when compared with the nation.
Figure 3 ranks the states by their low income preschool enrollment as a percent of all preschool enrollment. This provides a measure of state efforts to help the most vulnerable youth catch up with their more affluent counterparts. Again, Washington is last among the GCS and with this indicator we’re also last in the nation.
Per Student Funding
Washington Learns also compared each state's support for K-12 education using the average expenditure per student as their metric. At the time of that report, Washington was seventh among the group of eight states. The data in Figure 4 shows how Washington compares 2013, the most current year national data is available. This report was extracted from the Education Counts website and it adjusts expenditures based on each state’s cost of living. In this measure Washington has moved up one spot among the comparison states and was 39th in the nation.
Student Teacher Ratios
Student teacher ratios is the final comparison of K-12 inputs. Ten years ago, Washington was seventh among the eight comparison states in that measure. The data in the following tables comes from an Educational Testing Service report, Minding the Gap. Figure 5 shows the number of teachers per 100 students back in 1993. At that time, we were sixth among the eight comparison states and 24th in the nation. It’s interesting to note this was just prior to the implementation of Washington’s Essential Academic Learning Requirements and the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which were designed for both student and system accountability. One might assume that with the implementation of such significant education reforms, more staff would have been assigned to schools to insure a successful implementation.
As the chart in Figure 6 demonstrates, that did not occur. By 2012 Washington had slid to seventh among the GCS and we sank to 47th in the nation. It’s interesting to note that Washington was the only state in the GCS that did worse in this metric from 1993 to 2012. Our drop of 0.43 teachers per 100 students in that time would represent 4,300 additional teachers with today’s enrollment. And to match the average ratio of the GCS in 2012, Washington would need to add nearly 16,000 teachers!
Based on the benchmark indicators used in the Washington Learns study, it’s difficult to find positive trends that have occurred for Washington’s students in the past decade as compared with the Global Challenge States. Extrapolating those trends into the future, the only hope of significant change is for our Legislature to invest significantly more funding into our public schools. Finding proposed sources of such revenue is in fact one of the assignments given to the EFTF. Whatever those proposals are, one can assume there will be organized and well-funded opposition to any new tax scheme. Part of that anti-tax argument will be that we are already taxed too much and couldn’t possibly afford to pay more.
The table in Figure 7 offers some comparative data on how over-burdened our economy is with taxes. It shows the GCS and national ranking of states in their education funding effort. This data comes from the 2016 Is Funding Fair annual report. They explain the effort index as follows:
The Effort index takes into account each state’s local and state spending on education in relation to the state’s economic productivity, or gross state product (GSP). Combining these two elements into a ratio provides a sense of the priority education is given in state and local budgets.
Based on this 2013 information, all but one of the Global Challenge states, and 45 of all states are putting forth a greater effort than Washington does in funding schools.
Figure 8 shows the change in this metric over time from 2008 to 2013. Based on that information Washington compares somewhat better. Perhaps that reflects the Legislature’s early efforts to address the McCleary decision. Even with that improved standing, though, Washington’s change in the Effort Index during this timeframe was still quite negative.
That decline in effort probably isn’t caused by our legislators’ lack of commitment to Washington’s children. It’s more likely due to the declining share of our economy that state revenues represent. The graph in Figure 9 was created by the Washington Office of Financial Management and shows the trend in state revenues as a percent of personal income. As noted in the graph, the drop since 1990 represents a loss of $15 billion per biennium. That loss would have gone a long way toward reversing the trends reflected in the preceding tables. It also demonstrates the scale of the problem faced by legislators who generally avoid at all costs any proposal for new taxes.
Given the trends outlined in this article, it’s difficult to be overly optimistic that the Education Funding Task Force will finally take this bull by the horns and produce the solutions ordered by the Court. Contrary to the Washington Learns quote at the beginning of this piece, average would be a welcome change to the bottom-tier state support we have worked with for several decades. In her concluding comments in the introduction to the Washington Learns report, Gregoire framed the challenge that lies ahead:
It is time for bold, purposeful action. It is time to make some big changes to Washington’s education system. It’s time to make the hopes and dreams of our children a reality. It is time to get to work.
Let’s hope that 2017 Legislature is more willing and able to address this challenge than the ones that proceeded it. Let’s hope the 2017 Legislature is ready to get to work.
"I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not."
- Michael Pollan
During the course of my career, I have participated in countless conversations about holding schools more accountable. The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation grew out such thinking. The underlying assumption of the law was that if educators just worked harder, our public schools could overcome the ills of our society. It enshrined a set of blame-and-shame provisions through which it was assumed all students would become successful within 12 years. In retrospect, it sounds like a silly notion, but countless human and financial resources have been wasted since 2002 chasing that illusion. We will likely experience the unintended negative consequences of that law for decades to come.
With the passage of the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, there was great hope among educators that we could make the major course correction that was needed. Clearly, there is much to like with ESSA, in particular, returning significant authority for schools back to the states. Troubling signs remain that the Department of Education continues to legislate through regulations beyond the authority provided in the law, but this legislation represents a very positive reversal of the federal overreach represented in NCLB.
It remains to be seen what states will do with this regained authority. Will they rethink blame-and-shame approaches to school accountability? Or will the same thinking continue under state, rather than federal authority? In Washington, a very broad-based planning process has been implemented by State Superintendent Randy Dorn in which over 300 people have been involved on 13 planning committees. They have been tasked with developing proposals for inclusion in the state’s accountability plan, but Superintendent Dorn will ultimately make the final decisions before submitting our state plan.
One of those ESSA subcommittees, the Accountability System Workgroup (ASW), was tasked with developing proposals for new accountability measures not already required under state law. At a minimum, ESSA requires a non-academic indicator to be added for all schools. The 40 members of that committee represent a wide variety of organizations with divergent perspectives regarding Washington’s public schools. Over the past seven months they proposed nearly 50 new accountability measures for our schools.
Using the consensus voting model adopted by OSPI for this planning process, two of those recommended indicators will be forwarded for consideration by the Consolidated Plan Team. The two newly proposed indicators put forth by the ASW are: 1) 9th Graders on Track for Graduation, and 2) Chronic Absence Rates. The metric for the first is yet to be developed, but for the second one, it’s the percent of students with 18 or more absences. That number was selected because of the research that shows that students’ chances of success decline significantly when 10% or more of the school year is missed.
During our ASW discussions, I shared the criteria I would use when voting for each proposed accountability indicator. The criteria are based on the notion that fairness is a fundamental requirement of any effective school accountability provision. One needn’t look any farther than NCLB to see what happens when an unfair accountability system is imposed on schools. The fairness criteria that guided my votes were as follows:
Do all schools, regardless of context (size, rural/urban, wealthy/poor, etc.)., have an equal opportunity to perform well on the indicator?
Do schools have control of the significant factors that lead to success with the indicator?
Are the costs of success on the indicator and reporting about it fully funded by the state?
Based on those criteria, I voted in favor of adding 9th Graders on Track for graduation and against Chronic Absentee Rates. In my opinion, that absence indicator violates all three elements of the fairness criteria. In considering control, student absences are mostly driven by parent or student decisions and are largely outside the control of school staff. Regarding costs, during our deliberations, examples of successful school programs that improved attendance rates were shared. None of these programs are state-funded, however, and not all districts have the same capacity in local levy funding to provide such support.
Regarding the context criteria, the following charts highlight that issue. The scatter chart in Figure 1 demonstrates a context variable which doesn’t appear to impact chronic absences. It shows the relationship between chronic absences and district enrollment. Each of the dots places a district in the matrix based on its enrollment and its chronic absence rate. The red trend line near the bottom demonstrates the relationship between the two variables. Both the horizontal nature of the line and the correlation (R2 = 0.0002) demonstrate the absence of a relationship between the variables. Based on this data, one can assume that district size makes no difference in chronic absence rates.
The chart in Figure 2 tells a different story. This graph reflects the relationship between chronic absences and school poverty as measured by the district’s Free and Reduced Lunch rate. This data demonstrates a significant relationship (R2 = 0.1073) between poverty and chronic absences. Therefore, this proposed accountability measure disproportionally impacts districts with high poverty rates. Adding this measure would, therefore, make the accountability system even more likely to identify schools and districts based on their poverty levels.
The work of the ASW will be considered by the state’s ESSA Consolidated Plan Team at their October 20 meeting. They could approve both proposed indicators, remove one of them, approve additional indicators, or fail to reach a consensus vote on any of them. Following that meeting, the accountability recommendations will also be considered by the State Board of Education during their November 9-10 meeting. Given the State Board's statutory role with the state’s accountability system, they must also weigh in on any ASW proposals considered by Superintendent Dorn. Your voice could help shape this plan as it moves forward through those next steps.
As we near the finish line with the development of our state’s ESSA Accountability Plan, my hope is that we will let go of the failed strategies of NCLB and implement a system that fairly measures our schools’ performance. The fairness criteria I’ve shared is one way of achieving that goal, but it remains to be seen if our adopted plan will honor these fairness principles.
When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly
out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.
- Winston Churchill
As I entered the Temple of Justice on the morning of September 7 for the latest Supreme Court McCleary hearing, I was pondering a question that has troubled me throughout the course of the lawsuit: What will happen to education funding after the Court relinquishes its jurisdiction in the case?
Nothing I heard in the state’s testimony that morning provided any sense of relief regarding that concern. As with the 2014 hearing, the state’s defense continued to exaggerate past accomplishments, minimized the scale of what remains to be done, and over-estimated legislative commitment to creating the funding system required by the constitution. At some point, though, whether or not the solution is complete, the court will relinquish its jurisdiction. What happens then?
A big part of why Washington’s education funding system went from near the top among the states to near the bottom during that past four decades, is the powerful pressure exerted on the Legislature by anti-tax forces. This isn’t just an opposition to new taxes because as the graph in Figure 1 indicates, we’re nowhere near the level of state revenue as a percent income that we were two decades ago.
Source: Washington State Budget and Policy Center
In a 2014 presentation on this topic, Office of Financial Management Director David Schumacher said this decline represented a loss of $15 billion in revenue for the biennium. That would be more than enough to address the state’s education funding shortfall.
Some of the state revenue decline, reflected in Figure 1, is due to a tax system that is overly dependent on sales tax, which is a declining revenue source. Much of the decline, however, can be traced to the pressure anti-tax forces have exerted on our legislators. One response to this pressure is the Legislature’s inclination to provide an increasing number of tax breaks. As the graph in Figure 2 demonstrates, the number of exemptions has grown significantly at the same time our state revenues have declined.
Source: WA State Dept. of Revenue
According to a 2016 report by the Washington Department of Revenue, the estimated net value of these exemptions, if repealed, is $30.1 billion for the 2017-19 biennium. That represents 92% of the projected $32.6 billion in revenue that would be generated by these state tax sources. In other words, the Legislature has given away nearly half of the potential revenue from these sources. A fraction of these tax-break resources would be enough for the state to fully fund basic education.
The net effect of this downward pressure on revenue can be seen in Figure 3, produced by OSPI. The bottom trend line in that infographic reflects the work of Quality Counts, a compilation of state-level education data gathered by Education Week. The Quality Counts information adjusts the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data used in the upper line to reflect cost-of-living differences between the states. That method provides relevant context information related to the impact of education dollars. The numbers on both lines reflect Washington’s ranking among the states in its per student funding for any given year. Regarding those rankings, it’s worth noting that in 2004-05 Washington reached a low point of 45th in the nation using the Quality Counts data.
Source: Superintendent of Public Instruction
The high point in the trend line shown in Figure 3, is the year after the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Doran decision. That landmark decision gave the state a much more primary role in funding our public schools. Given the trend since that decision, it appears to be a role legislators have been unable or unwilling to fulfill. As the historical graph in Figure 4 demonstrates, local levy funding as a percent of total school revenue made a steep decline in 1978 following the Doran Decision, but then in 1981 that percentage began to steadily increase up to current levels.
Source: OSPI School District Property Tax Levies, 2015 Collections, Table 3
To be clear, the steady increase reflected in Figure 4 didn’t occur because of any legal action that nullified Doran’s finding regarding the state’s responsibility to fully fund basic education. It happened because countless legislators over the past four decades found it more palatable to raise the levy lid than to raise the taxes necessary to fully fund our schools.
During that time, local voters in many communities have supported dramatic increases in their local school levies. As that local revenue source grew, many school districts increasingly used levy funds to cover the shortfall in state funding. Because of the wide disparity in property values, other districts weren't able to provide their students with similar support. That trend is what led to the McCleary decision.
As we near the end of this decade-long legal battle, I find myself wondering about the future. In addition to the Winston Churchill quote listed above, he is also credited with saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Hopefully, after the current legal proceedings have ended, Washington’s leaders will be committed to avoiding a repeat of this erosion in the constitutional principles clarified by the McCleary and Doran decisions. Unfortunately, hoping for that commitment doesn’t provide much confidence that the errors of the past won’t be repeated. It will be up to the state’s next generation of leaders to remain vigilant so that every child realizes the promise of an amply funded education as guaranteed by our state constitution.
Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.
- George Washington Carver
The opportunity or achievement gap is certainly a trending topic in current education literature. Countless studies have shown lower levels of school success among students of color and low income. Given the increasingly bleak economic reality faced by those who aren’t successful in our schools, closing that gap has become a primary focus of school leaders across the nation. Due to the importance of this topic, I plan to post multiple articles on the subject during the coming year. Our hope is that as the McCleary decision improves funding for school districts, the learning gap will become a top priority for school districts in the use of new revenues.
While the sense of urgency about the achievement gap is relatively new, there is a deep body of research on the topic extending back several decades. James Coleman’s landmark study, The Equality of Educational Opportunity, was submitted to President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Congress fifty years ago in 1966, as a requirement of the Civil Rights Act. That study, which is commonly referred to as the Coleman Report, found that student background and socioeconomic status had more impact on education outcomes than school resources.
Much of the research, going back to and including the Coleman Report, has focused on two interrelated aspects of the achievement gap: race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. There’s good evidence regarding differential achievement based on both sets of variables, and therefore, studies of both factors could provide clues for closing the gap. In 2011, Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University produced a valuable report that tracks changes in the socioeconomic and black-white achievement gaps over six decades.
The charts in Figure 5.1 and Figure 5.2 illustrate the socioeconomic achievement gap trend in reading and math respectively. For the purpose of this piece, I suggest that readers disregard the various points in the graph and focus instead on the lines. Those trend lines reflect a growing gap in both subjects when comparing achievement of students at the 10th and 90th percentile of family income between 1943 and 2001. It should also be noted that the years are birth years, so 2001 reflects a student who is 15 years old in 2016.
The gap in these charts is measured in standard deviation units. Reardon provides a helpful explanation on how to interpret the size of the gaps with those units:
One way to get a sense of the size of the gaps is to compare them to the amount that an average student learns during the course of a year. Data from the NAEP indicate that the average student gains 1.2 to 1.5 standard deviations in math and reading between fourth and eighth grade and between 0.6 and 0.7 standard deviations in math and reading between eighth and twelfth grade. Thus, a gap of 1 standard deviation is substantively very large, corresponding to roughly 3 to 6 years of learning in middle or high school. (pg. 10)
Given that explanation, the trend lines in Figures 5.1 and 5.2 highlight a troubling and growing gap in the achievement levels of America’s high and low-income students. In fact, the income-based achievement gap was higher in 2001 than at any time in the previous six decades, and it represented on average, several years of lost learning for low income students. That is a sobering statistic for any educator to consider.
Regarding the reason for the growing gap, Reardon suggests that “this may be in part a result of increasing parental investment in children’s cognitive development” (pg. 5), among the upper income families. If so, it truly is an opportunity gap, or as one colleague recently said, it’s an experience gap. The chart in Figure 5.5 below is based on research by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane. It shows the growing gap in spending on children’s enrichment between families in the top and bottom quartiles of income.
Another factor in this income-based trend is what Reardon identifies as increased residential segregation by levels of income:
Greater residential income segregation may affect the school-quality differential between high- and low-income students, because high-income parents are better able to garner resources for their schools. (pg. 24)
Hopefully, that is an issue that the McCleary case in Washington State will help resolve. Unless that happens, students in affluent school districts will continue to benefit from greater learning supports, both in school and at home, than students living in property-poor school districts. And the concentration of poverty in itself creates added learning challenges for the students in those schools.
David Berliner highlights that issue in the chart in Figure 7. At first blush, it doesn’t appear much different from any other graph that demonstrates the inverse relationship between achievement and poverty. But Berliner is showing the achievement of low-income and middle-income students within various levels of school poverty. The stunning takeaway in this data is that middle-income students do worse in high-poverty schools than low-income students do in affluent schools. Clearly, context matters.
In Figures 5.3 and 5.4, Reardon goes on to compare the income-based gaps already referenced with the black-white achievement gap during the same time frame. In those charts, the dashed lines represent the black-white trend, and the solid lines represent the income gap.
The good news with this information is that rather than growing, the black-white achievement gap has closed significantly during those six decades. Even with that progress, however, much more must be done. For students born in 2001, the black-white gap was still over 0.5 standard deviations for both reading and math. Applying Reardon’s standard deviation yardstick, that gap still represents a few years of learning difference. Given this data, it should come as little surprise that black students on average have a much lower graduation rate than their white counterparts.
It should also be noted that this data reflects averages, and there are many lighthouse school districts that have made tremendous progress toward eliminating achievement gaps among the students they serve. Our hope is that all schools will make this issue their highest priority, and in doing so, will learn from the successes others have achieved. Until that happens the door to freedom and prosperity will remain locked for many of our most vulnerable citizens.
One cool judgement is worth a thousand hasty counsels.
The thing to be supplied is light, not heat.
-- Woodrow Wilson
Given the recent guest articles in this blog and my time off this summer, it has been a long time since I’ve added any content. And while it was nice to have some vacation, it’s been anything but a slow summer. In July, while I was enjoying the mountains of Idaho, State Superintendent Randy Dorn filed a lawsuit against seven of the largest school districts in the state.
While this legal action may have come as a big surprise to many citizens, Dorn has been hinting at such action for quite some time. Last November, WASA sent out a press release critical of his request for a State Attorney General’s opinion on whether school districts “have the authority to use local levies to pay compensation to district employees for basic education services.”
On December 3, the AG’s Office responded and declined to offer an opinion, stating: “Our answer to your question could anticipate forthcoming proceedings in this case, inject new issues into the case, or implicate constitutional questions surrounding state statutes governing education funding, which are directly or indirectly at issue in McCleary.” In other words, the AG’s office didn’t want to inject an opinion in the midst of the ongoing McCleary clash between the State Supreme Court and the Legislature.
Upsetting that apple cart appears to be the precise motivation behind Dorn’s lawsuit. Dorn’s strategy seeks to create chaos that will promote legislative action. In the OSPI press release about the lawsuit, Dorn stated: “…it wasn't the Supreme Court that convinced legislators to vote for a major tax increase in 1982 … school funding cuts created a public outcry that led to the tax increase.”
While we certainly support Dorn’s motivation, we don’t agree with his strategy of suing school districts to spur legislative action. In an editorial in The Everett Herald, we went public with that opposition, stating: “Dorn’s lawsuit doesn’t just throw seven school districts into chaos, it threatens levy passage for all school districts if voters accept his contention that such levies have been used illegally.”
But what if Dorn is right? Clearly, he is passionate about serving all of Washington’s students; and he correctly asserts that under our constitution, a student’s zip code shouldn’t determine a child’s quality of education. Since a lot of time and planning has gone into this lawsuit, Dorn must recognize that if successful, it would throw the seven defendants and the vast majority of other districts into unchartered legal waters. The gamble, of course, is that school districts won’t face that crisis, because public pressure will force the Legislature to take actions they have avoided thus far.
But what if Dorn is wrong? The worst version of wrong is that the Court rules in favor of Dorn, and still the Legislature doesn’t come up with the billions of dollars needed to backfill the lost local salary funding. Given the durable Republican talking point that no new taxes are needed to solve the McCleary problem, that’s not such an unlikely scenario. With that outcome, many school districts would either be forced to violate their collective bargaining agreements or make major lay-offs. And given the fact that many districts pay a third or more of salaries from local levies, the budget hole to fill with layoffs could be huge. As a result, the very students Dorn seeks to protect could suffer most.
Another version of wrong is that the lawsuit drags on into the future and is only resolved as part of the ultimate McCleary solution. That may be the best version of Dorn being wrong, and yet, students could still suffer because the lawsuit undermines the public confidence and support needed to pass local levies. And with that scenario, the lawsuit will have done little if anything to change the McCleary outcome.
Among the other likely outcomes from Dorn’s action, it’s also possible that the Court would rule against him. A strong case could certainly be made that school districts have been following all applicable laws in providing local salary enhancements. But even a victory by the defendant districts could undermine voter confidence in the use of local levies. And couldn’t it undercut or complicate a solution to McCleary? If that happens, students again are the losers.
Given the variety of potential problems caused by Dorn’s gambit, why was he in such a rush to take this action? Perhaps he has lost confidence in the will of the Court to hold the Legislature accountable. If so, that’s in spite of the Court’s notice five days before filing his lawsuit, ordering the parties to appear again on September 7. Their last ordered appearance was followed by the imposition of an unprecedented $100,000 per day fine against the Legislature. And while Dorn may have lost confidence in the Court’s commitment to this case, it seems very likely that additional penalties will be imposed after the September hearing.
So in spite of the real risks of harming students posed by his lawsuit, and in spite of the apparent determination by the Court to “up the ante” in their pressure, Dorn decided not to wait and jumped in where the AG’s office declined to go. It’s not as if the Court couldn’t create the same pressure. They could for example, rule the locally-funded salary provisions of RCW 28A.400.200 as unconstitutional. Dorn’s lawsuit isn’t needed to open that possibility.
As we analyze Dorn’s action from this risk vs. rewards perspective, we are hard pressed to understand what has propelled him to act ahead of the Court’s next pronouncement in the case. Whatever his motivation, we remain convinced that it was a mistake and hope that students aren’t left holding the bag for his decision.
"That's not a lie, it's a terminological inexactitude."
- Alexander Haig
It is very unusual that I would offer back-to-back guest articles in this blog, but I couldn't improve on the piece below written by Dan Steele. As the Governmental Relations staff person for both WASA and WSSDA, Dan Steele has been a close observer of the State Legislature for two decades. Given the insights developed over that time I thought readers would appreciate his perspective on the State's recent McCleary progress report.
On May 18, Washington State Attorney General Robert W. Ferguson, Senior Assistant Attorney General David A. Stolier, and Deputy Solicitor General Alan D. Copsey submitted - on behalf of the State of Washington (and the Washington State Legislature) - the required post-budget McCleary “progress” report to the Supreme Court. Some of the State’s comments deserve to be challenged.
In multiple places in the Attorney General’s brief (including pages 2, 3, 14, and 16) the State proclaims the Legislature’s “full commitment to fund the State’s program of basic education” by the end of the 2017 Session - as stated in E2SSB 6195 (the McCleary “plan-to-make-a-plan” bill). First, even if we take the Legislature’s word that they intend to follow through with its stated commitment, E2SSB 6195 still offers no “complete plan” as ordered by the Court. Specifically, the Court ordered a “complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-18 school year” (Aug. 13, 2015 Order and elsewhere). Second, the Legislature’s so-called “commitment” does not specifically bind the Legislature to actually fulfill that commitment. Third, there is no description (that is, plan) clarifying HOW they will meet this commitment.
Additionally, the AG notes the Legislature boldly commits in E2SSB 6195 to solve the compensation/levy problem by 2017, and bluntly states “that commitment is stated without equivocation.” What the AG completely ignores is the Legislature’s corresponding back-tracking on that commitment when it adopted the 2016 Supplemental Operating Budget. In the budget, the Legislature reiterates its stated commitment WITH equivocation (Section 515, 2ESHB 2376). It hedges its “commitment” by establishing an exit strategy, if next year’s Legislature doesn’t agree to meet that commitment. If the State is so sure of its actual commitment to follow through on its “commitment,” why would it equivocate that commitment with an “out”?
Further, the end of the AG’s report mocks the plaintiffs and presupposes they will argue that the Legislature cannot be trusted to carry out its commitment - to which the AG insists the Legislature is “entitled to a presumption of regularity and good faith” (page 22). In noting the E2SSB 6195 commitment to solve the compensation/levy question, the AG bluntly states, “That statement of commitment by a coordinate branch of government is entitled to respect” (page 16). Well, if the Legislature’s own members lack faith in their ability to fulfill their “commitment,” why should the plaintiffs (or the Court) trust that “commitment”? Sen. Andy Hill, the Senate Ways & Means Committee Chair, the key architect and negotiator of the Operating Budget, and by virtue of his position, a key leader in the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, has publicly confirmed his doubts about the Legislature’s commitment. Prior to the start of this session, in reference to the Legislature’s obligation to solve the compensation/levy question, Sen. Hill is quoted as saying, “My advice to school districts is, assume the levy cliff is going to occur, because that’s the one thing that’s for sure right now. The Legislature may act and solve it, but if I were them, I’d be hoping for the best and planning for the worst” (The News Tribune, Jan. 10, 2016).
I’d also add that the Court has ample evidence of the Legislature’s lack of follow through. For example, when the Court was contemplating a Contempt of Court ruling (June 2014), the State’s Deputy Solicitor General Alan D. Copsey urged the Court to have patience. He stated very clearly (and without equivocation, by the way) that the Court had legislators’ attention and the paramount duty would be their priority. He continued by clearly stating that legislators knew that 2015 was THE year for the necessary “grand bargain” to solve the education funding problem. Of course, they failed to follow through in 2015 - and then failed to even attempt to follow through in 2016. One of the Justices at the Show-Cause hearing asked the State’s attorney why they should believe the State would finally comply with the Court’s Orders. That question needs to be asked again.
Joint Task Force on Education Funding
The AG mocks the Court’s (and plaintiffs’) use of the funding plan from the Legislature’s own Joint Task Force on Education Funding (JTFEF) as a benchmark for progress, because a task force submits simply “an aspirational recommendation” (page 7). First, legislators should jump at the chance to use these benchmarks - because the JTFEF recommendations set a lower bar than what the State promised in sworn testimony at trial. Or was that simply “aspirational” testimony? Second, if the JTFEF recommendations are not an appropriate benchmark, why does the AG note the Legislature’s progress on K-3 class size reduction “compares favorably with the linear schedule recommended by the JTFEF plan”? (page 18). When the recommendations are met, they are appropriate; however, when they aren’t met, they are just aspirational?
There has been considerable debate over the last year or two about whether or how McCleary obligations should be shown in the Legislature’s required four-year balanced budget Outlook. Page 19 discusses the inclusion of K-3 class size funding in the Outlook: “the necessary costs are included in the four-year balanced budget outlook for the 2015-17 operating budget and will be included in the maintenance level funding in the 2017-19 operating budget.” Then the AG states flatly, “This inclusion in the budget outlook evidences the Legislature’s commitment to provide that funding.”
On May 18, the Economic & Revenue Forecast Council met to adopt the official four-year Outlook. There was a prolonged debate (continued from its meeting last month) about whether or how the costs for K-12 compensation, related to McCleary, should be included in the 2017-19 part of the Outlook. Sen. Hill, Senate Ways & Means Committee Chair and member of the Council, argued they should NOT be included. A motion was made to include some level of estimated costs, but the motion was defeated. Ultimately, the final motion to adopt the official Outlook as presented failed to garner enough votes for passage, so by default (as stipulated in statute) the staff recommendation (with no noted compensation costs) stands as the official Outlook. All that to say: using the AG’s logic that “inclusion in the budget outlook evidences the Legislature’s commitment to provide that funding,” doesn’t it stand to reason that NOT including any estimate of compensation costs in the budget Outlook evidences the Legislature’s LACK of commitment to provide that funding? Can you have your cake and eat it, too?
On page 20, the AG’s brief provides a list of claimed funding accomplishments to support all-day K and K-3 class size implementation. The fourth bullet point mischaracterizes school construction funding. It notes the State provided “funding ($611 million) for the School Construction Assistance Program to help expand facilities to support all-day kindergarten and K-3 class size reductions” (emphasis added). SCAP is not specifically directed to all-day K or K-3 class size reductions. It provides funding assistance for facility planning, new construction, and modernizations at all grade levels. That may or may not include all-day K or K-3 class size reductions. To claim $611 million was provided for these specific McCleary-related items is, at best, an exaggeration.
The last bullet point on page 20 is not anything to be excited about. It notes in 2015 the State provided “Funding ($200 million) for a new program of grants specifically to support all-day kindergarten and K-3 class size reduction.” The Legislature should get some credit for finally recognizing this problem; however, this grant program is woefully underfunded. In Superintendent Dorn’s 2015-17 Capital Budget proposal, he requested almost $2.0 billion to provide the new classrooms required to actually implement all-day K and K-3 class size reduction.
On page 21, the AG notes the 2016 Supplemental Capital Budget provides an additional “$74.8 million to support school construction and class size reduction.” This statement is more accurate; however, it would have been more honest to say $34.8 million was provided for SCAP and $34.5 million was provided for class size reduction (their number includes a slight mathematical and/or rounding error). Again, while positive, the SCAP funding is for “general” facilities funding (and is technically a maintenance level increase); and the class size funding equals $234.5 million for the biennium… out of a $2.0 billion cost.
Echoing the report from the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Article IX Litigation, the AG states plainly “the State now has submitted a plan”- even though this statement is made immediately following a paragraph reciting the Court’s Order: the required plan must include “how [the State] will achieve the required goals, with a phase-in schedule and benchmarks for measuring full compliance” (page 10). On page 14, it is noted that E2SSB 6195 “establishes explicit benchmarks the Court may use to assess the Legislature’s progress under this plan.” The benchmarks in the bill are established for an analysis of data and for a set of recommendations to potentially be adopted, NOT for any other specific action or progress. How this can be defended as a “complete plan” to achieve full constitutional compliance by the McCleary ruling’s 2017-18 school year deadline is baffling.
In fact, on page 15, it is noted E2SSB 6195 “does not include a budget for legislation to be enacted in 2017, because the information necessary to craft that legislation is not yet available.” So, the State confesses its supposed “plan” does not meet the Court’s mandate for a “complete plan” that includes a demonstration that the Legislature’s “budget meets it plan”?
The AG concludes the State’s filing (pages 22-23) by again stating the Legislature has complied with the Court's Order - and states plainly, “The Court therefore should dissolve the order finding the State in contempt and terminate its order imposing daily sanctions on the State.” As discussed in this post, the State’s claim of compliance is not credible. The Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), the plaintiffs in the McCleary case, will surely refute this claim when it files its official response to the State’s brief on June 7. State Superintendent Randy Dorn has already publicly stated his disbelief about the State’s assertions and has called on the Court to impose “tough sanctions” on the State. He is expected to file an amicus brief with the Court making this same request. Even the Seattle Times recently said the Court’s fines have not worked and “the state Supreme Court should up the ante on sanctions to get lawmakers’ attention.”
Let’s hope our Supreme Court Justices can see through the State’s smoke and mirrors and will take a strong stand against the State’s ongoing refusal to comply with court orders.
This guest article was written by Dr. Frank Hewins, Superintendent of Franklin Pierce School District and President of the Washington Association of School Administrators.
As experienced educational administrators, don’t you think you should know that if schools were only like they used to be when you were in school, or when your parents were in school, or when their parents were in school that everything would be fine--our kids would be model citizens, our economy would be flourishing, poverty and unemployment would not exist, the government would be our best friend, and there would be peace and love throughout the world?
Of course not, because none of it is true! Millions of Americans argue, often vehemently, that today’s schools are dreadful compared to the temples of learning that existed in our golden past. In their view, we would all be better off if schools could just be the way they used to be. Sure. Unfortunately, this “rear-view mirror” mentality is dangerous!
What these people are suffering from is a debilitating mental condition (coined by author Jamie Vollmer in his book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone) called “NOSTESIA.” Nostesia is a hallucinogenic mixture of 50 percent nostalgia and 50 percent amnesia that distorts rational thinking.
Of course, the nostesia epidemic is not new. Each succeeding generation of young people is regarded by their elders as “academically challenged.” Written expressions of “these kids today . . .” and “these schools today . . .” go back as far as Plato.
Every nostesiac has his or her own rationale. Some are convinced that schools in the past were better because everybody got a job. They forget that most of those jobs, now gone, required little more than a strong back and a willingness to work. Some people are alarmed because “these kids today” don’t know the same things they know, especially historical facts that they consider essential to being a good American. These adults forget that most of what they know, they learned after they got out of school.
They also fail to see that it’s not possible for today’s students to learn everything their parents or grandparents learned, plus everything that has happened since--especially in a school year that has not added a minute in decades but has layered on more and more additional duties for schools and teachers.
Some nostesiacs parrot the dreary assessment of public schools offered by media pundits. Some adults cling to the fantasy, because they refuse to believe they’ve been surpassed by new generations of kids. This is especially pronounced among the college educated. Finally, there are the CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). No amount of reasoned discourse will eradicate their disease.
Nostesia can be cured, but it must be aggressively treated. The most effective treatment includes direct exposure to students and teachers in schools--the more interactive the better--coupled with regular, powerful doses of good news about our schools.
So . . . just when WAS the Golden Age of American education? (Based on media reports, it obviously isn’t now--or is it?)
While there is data for every decade going back to the early 1800s, I think you will get the drift from examples over the last 60 years.
It wasn’t in the 2000s:
It wasn’t in the 1990s:
It wasn’t in the 1980s:
It wasn’t in the 1970s:
It wasn’t in the 1960s:
It SURE wasn’t in the 1950s:
So what is the conclusion? The Golden Age of America’s schools is a myth! For over 200 years, America’s public schools have risen to meet every challenge posed by a rapidly evolving society, an experiment in free-market representative democracy that is unique in world history. The truth is that each succeeding generation of young Americans has been better educated than its predecessors. While there is no doubt that our schools need to change to meet the demands of the knowledge age and have much room for improvement, any nostesiac who proclaims, “If we could just have the schools we used to have,” is either deluded or terribly misinformed and is an obstacle to increasing student success.
Never doubt that work in the continuous improvement of our schools has never been better. Due to the advances in neuroscience, technology, and pedagogy, we know more about lesson design, scaffolding, interventions, the use of data, formative assessment, leadership and supporting the “whole” child than at any time in the history of this nation.
As discouraging (think media) and frustrating (think legislature) as it may seem at times, we must keep fighting the good fight for our children and continue the incredible work educators are doing to make public education the best it can be!
In this world, you get what you pay for.
― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle
A recent series of articles in the Seattle Times Ed Lab did a great job of explaining why Massachusetts’ public schools do so much better than Washington’s schools. It should be required reading for anyone seeking or holding legislative office. In a follow-up column, Danny Westneat addressed the source of the problem facing our public schools, “The question going around is: Why do our schools lag behind those in the similar state of Massachusetts? There’s a one-word answer: leadership.”
The subtext of the leadership issues Westneat identified in his column is the apparent lack of political will related to taxes. The chart in Figure 1 produced by OSPI, shows how that has impacted Washington’s standing among the states in relation to one measure, funding per student. The difference between the NCES and Quality Counts lines is that the later data from Education Week adjusts expenditures for cost of living differences between the states.
The decline in per student funding since 1980 shown in Figure 1 is mirrored by a similar drop in state revenue that’s reflected in Figure 3.1. That data is from our state Economic and Revenue Forecasting Council. It shows that in 2009, our state revenue as a percent of personal income hit the lowest point in over fifty years, and it’s still declining. This should make the anti-tax folks happy, but instead, they are trying to force an even greater decline.
In his column, Westneat cited data contained in the recently released National Report Card, produced by the Education Law Center in the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. That report compares and ranks states on various indicators that help evaluate “the extent to which state finance systems ensure equality of educational opportunity for all children, regardless of background, family income, place of residence, or school location.”
It may come as little surprise that Washington is near the bottom of the barrel in most of these comparisons. In the summary below, I’ve provided the five-year trend of Washington’s Report Card rankings in some of the key indicators used in the report.
This indicator is a highpoint for Washington in the 2016 Report Card. It compares the number of teachers per 100 students in high and low poverty districts.
If one digs a little deeper into this data, however, the results are not so promising. The starting point of the calculation is the overall student-teacher ratio (teachers per 100 students), which is then compared to schools with high concentrations of poverty. In that starting point, Washington’s overall ratio is among the worst in the nation. So the reason our staffing is relatively fairer than in many states, is that it is equitably bad in both high and low poverty schools.
This factor measures the enrollment rates of low income 3 and 4 year-olds in preschool as compared with the state’s overall enrollment rate. Such early access to learning is the best way to help students living in poverty catch up with their peers before entering kindergarten. Once again, Washington is at the bottom of the barrel. Given the ranking of 51 in two of those years, it should be noted that Washington D.C. is included in this data.
Given the teacher shortage crisis facing our state, this is a very important indicator. It compares teachers’ salaries to the salaries of other professionals in the same labor market and of similar age, degree level, and hours worked. The aggregate measure includes separate comparisons of teachers at age 25 and 45.
This is an indicator that I calculated using the data provided in the report. It is based on the Per Capita Gross State Product reflected in 2009 dollars. Based on that measure, Washington has one of the top economies in the nation. Because of that capacity, one might expect relatively strong support for our public schools.
This indicator explains all of the other embarrassing rankings listed above. It measures how well the state uses its economic capacity in support of public schools. The indicator is an indirect measure of the preoccupation of our citizens and politicians over the past few decades in making lower taxes the highest priority for the state.
The Legislature has squandered its time this session, choosing to push the question of education funding into 2017. Next year’s session will be lawmakers’ last chance to address the issue before the Supreme Court’s 2018 deadline. That will be a critical year for our politicians and citizens alike to decide what kind of state Washington will be in the future.
Will our claim to fame be quality schools or the continued strangling of government services created by a declining tax burden? Will we return the state’s education system to its former high ranking within the nation, or will we accept a second-class education that doesn’t support students who come to school without the advantages of more affluent children? Washington’s citizens face a critical historic juncture in the coming years. Regardless of the direction they choose, my hope is that it is based on the kind of solid facts provided above rather than the simplistic catch phrases that characterize much of the current political discourse.
I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well.
-- Alexander the Great
One needn’t look far in the popular press or among political commentary to see a consistent theme in which public education is criticized for a variety of perceived shortcomings. At times, that criticism seems to be the result of moving the goalposts or changing the purpose of our public schools.
For much of our nation’s history, the mission was to provide rudimentary education for most children while preparing the more capable students for college. That mission could be characterized as universal access, ensuring that all students had a fair shot at a high school diploma.
Our schools did a commendable job in achieving that mission. Figure 1 includes data from a historical report (pg. 55) provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). It shows that the percent of 17 year-olds who graduated from high school rose steadily throughout the 20th century.
Based on this data, however, over 40 percent didn’t graduate from high school in 1950, and there was no public outcry. That was because our economy needed these non-completers to fill jobs that generally provided a living wage.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the mission of public schools shifted dramatically. The new mission became one of universal success; and by the end of the century, our schools were expected to ensure graduation for all students. That change reflected the new reality that living wage jobs now required at least a high school diploma. In spite of the significant challenge represented by this new mission, there was very little public discussion regarding what it would take to achieve that goal. Because of their fundamental commitment to students, most educators dug in and worked hard without significant added resources to achieve this new mission.
As if graduation for all students wasn’t enough of a challenge, at about the same time, we began dramatically increasing what was required to earn a diploma. Table 225.10 in the 2014 NCES Digest of Education Statistics shows the trend of credits earned by high school graduates between 1982 and 2009. The graph in Figure 2 is based on that report.
This data reflects significantly increased rigor in both the number and type of credits associated with a high school diploma.
The chart doesn’t speak to increasing rigor that has occurred within many of these credits. Math requirements provide a good case in point. It used to be fairly common for school systems in Washington state to have a two-track math system. College-bound students would take a sequence that culminated in at least Algebra II, while those in the non-college track could meet their requirement with various forms of math generally below the level of Algebra I. In the mid-1990s, I helped lead a school district through the fairly radical change of requiring at least Algebra I and Geometry for all students. No school district in our region had such a demanding requirement at that time. In the two decades since then, the state graduation requirement has increased to include Algebra II or the equivalent for all students.
This increase in math requirements is part of the most recent shift in the mission of our public schools. Universal success with a high school diploma is no longer enough. Our schools must now ensure universal college readiness in which all students are career and college ready. In practical terms, this means that in Washington and most other states, high school diploma requirements have become directly linked to college entrance requirements. Again, this significant change in mission has occurred with very little public debate or discussion about what resources it will take to achieve the goal. And once again, educators across the state and nation have rolled up their sleeves and are working hard to help all students achieve this new standard.
Clearly, expectations have increased significantly for our public schools over the past few decades. But in spite of ever-more challenging standards, the dropout rates across the nation continue to improve. The chart in Figure 3 is from the 2015 NCES report on dropout rates (pg. 21). It shows that the rate not only improved at the very time graduation standards were increasing, it also improved for all three major ethnic subgroups, and the gap between those subgroups decreased significantly.
At the same time expectations of our schools have increased dramatically, there has also been a significant shift in the context within which our schools operate. The chart in Figure 4 is from a recent Pew Research Center report (pg. 6), and it highlights one of those elements, the changing structure of the American family. The growing number of single parent families, along with their corresponding higher poverty rates, mirrors the many other contextual changes that have increased educational challenges for our schools during the past few decades.
Based on this information, our nation’s public schools have done a great job in preparing more and more students to meet increasing graduation standards within a more challenging context. This is not to say there isn’t room for improvement, and every school leader I know is engaged in efforts to prepare even more students for success in meeting the heightened demands of the 21st century. Instead of recognition for all of their effort and success in that regard, our public schools receive constant criticism and ongoing political efforts to privatize public education. As I near the end of my education career, this pattern makes me wonder what it would take for pundits and politicians to show real appreciation for the remarkable effort and accomplishments of our public school system and those who work so hard within it.
Bill Keim is the Executive Director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.