— Edward R. Murrow
Senate Bill 5607 was released first and goes well beyond a funding fix. It completely restructures basic education while adding new school accountability measures and timelines. There are several intriguing aspects of the Senate bill, but it seems very late for such a major redesign of the basic education funding model. More problematic than the broad scope of the bill is that the innovations in the proposed new model seem strangled by a lack of resources.
One of the principles clearly articulated in McCleary is that it’s the state’s responsibility to fully fund the actual cost of providing all students with an education designed to achieve the state’s learning goals. Given the Court’s initial ruling and subsequent orders, it seems clear that our state’s current funding levels don’t meet that standard. And yet, according to a revised estimate created by Senate staff, SB 5607 would provide less funding in 2018-19 than current levels for 169 school districts that serve over 600,000 students. According to recent press reports, budget writers are still debating the actual amount of funding provided by the bill. Until that happens it’s an open question how many school districts would do worse under the Senate plan.
That issue points to another significant problem with the bill. It provides no metric to determine if current or future allocations provide the ample funding required by the constitution. The bill did include an annual inflationary adjustment, but that was based on national data which may not reflect cost escalation in Washington. Even if the allocation kept pace with our state’s inflation rate, the only apparent evidence that it provides ample funding is the assertion of those who drafted the bill.
The prototypical funding model, which is our current framework for basic education, was a bipartisan, research-based approach that determined appropriate allocations for various staff functions and non-employee costs. With those individual allocation drivers, it is fairly easy to determine the ampleness of state funding. The major problem with that model is that it has never been funded at levels recommended by research or the Legislature’s own Quality Education Council.
SB 5607 would replace that detailed allocation model with a weighted student funding formula that includes a guaranteed base amount with additional allocations for various categories of student needs, such as special education. The recognition within the plan that some students require greater funding is laudable, but the plan provides no evidence that either the base per-student amount or the additional need-based allocations are sufficient, much less ample, for educating our students.
House Bill 1843 took a narrower approach to funding our schools. It maintains the prototypical model and makes much-needed adjustments to some of the staff categories in that model. The bill also makes a smoother, four-year transition from the 28 percent levy lid down to 24 percent instead of the one-year cliff that’s in current law. It also adds professional development days, starting with two in 2018-19, and increasing to 10 by 2022-23. These are all positive aspects of the bill.
One of the most significant changes in HB 1843 is the level and method for allocating salaries. It raises starting teacher salaries to $45,500 compared to $45,000 in the Senate bill and $54,587 in the Governor’s proposal. An important, less obvious change in both the House and Senate bills is the elimination of the Salary Allocation Model (SAM). That model has been a positive component of our basic education funding since 1979.
Removing the SAM creates two negative consequences. The first is the loss of the staff mix factor which has assured school districts that the staff they hire will be funded at the same amount they earn on the state salary schedule. Without that factor, the salary allocation will be based on a statewide average. As a result, school districts that are able to recruit a more educated and/or experienced teaching corps will receive an allocation that’s less than their actual cost for the state-funded portion of their salaries. With that change, finding the best candidate will no longer be the sole criteria for hiring decisions. Instead, district leaders will also need to decide if they can afford to hire the most qualified teachers.
The second significant problem with eliminating the SAM is that it would immediately throw 295 school districts into bargaining chaos. The SAM has provided the foundation for district certificated salary schedules since 1979. It has created consistency in state-funded salaries received by teachers regardless of the district. With the SAM in place, the primary variable with teacher salaries was the amount of local funds added to that state model.
Now, without the state allocation schedule, local bargaining in each district could result in quite different distributions of the state salary money. With HB 1843, there would be three fixed points that districts need to meet with their certificated salaries. The average salary would need to match the state allocation; and first and third year salaries would need to be at or above a specified minimum. Within those parameters local bargaining could take quite different approaches to distributing state salary dollars. That would seem to violate the constitutional requirement for the State to create a uniform system.
Along with the loss of the SAM, each district will receive significant new funding while levy collections within HB 1843 would remain relatively high with a 24 percent lid. And while those dollars are flowing into the district, nothing has been done within that bill to curtail locally funded salaries through the TRI provisions of RCW 28A.400.200. That omission is puzzling, because without some limitation on local salary enhancements, little has been done to change the reliance on local levies to fund the state’s basic education responsibilities. After all the time and effort that’s gone addressing the McCleary decision, failing to address that problem seems extremely shortsighted.
The Senate plan, on the other hand, includes two elements designed to limit such locally funded salaries. The first is a clear statement that teacher strikes are illegal. The second is a cap of 80 percent for all salaries and benefits. While we appreciate the Senate’s effort to place some controls in this area, the 80 percent threshold isn’t the best way to do so. The state average percent spent on educator salaries and benefits in 2014-15 was 82 percent, with 117 school districts over the 80 percent bar. That artificial limit would make it very difficult for many districts to achieve the lower class sizes that have been part the state’s recent funding enhancements. It would also run contrary to state efforts to improve teacher salaries. From a national perspective, over two-thirds of states are over the 80 percent mark; and states below that number don’t score as well on the NAEP as those above the threshold.
Now that these plans are on the table, negotiations can begin to find a funding plan agreeable to both chambers. As this work proceeds, we hope legislators will consult with education professionals and use their knowledge to help minimize the negative aspects of a final plan.