― Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
A central issue in the court’s McCleary decision is unconstitutional reliance on local levies to fund basic education. Two State Supreme Court decisions in three decades have affirmed that it’s the state’s responsibility to amply fund basic education. Compensation is one of the most significant areas where local dollars are backfilling inadequate state funding. According to OSPI data, between the 1987-88 and 2012-13 school years, state allocations went from covering 99% of salaries to only 77%. This growing reliance on local funding amplifies the disadvantages faced by property poor districts. They simply can’t raise as much local funding as school districts with much higher assessed values per student.
Some data might help illustrate that point. The current maximum levy is basically 28% of the district budget, although 90 districts are grandfathered at rates as high as 37.9%. Based on OSPI data, the 10 school districts in the state with the highest property values would need levy rates of less than $1.00 per $1,000 to generate that theoretical maximum levy. The lowest rate would be $0.64 per $1,000. The 10 property-poorest districts would need rates over $15.00 per $1,000; and in the property-poorest district, it would cost $89.31 per $1,000 to hit the levy lid.
Since voters aren’t likely to approve levies with rates anywhere near that upper range, many districts have practical levy limits that are much lower than the legal limit. The actual range of M&O Levy rates for school districts in 2014 was between $0.30 and $7.60 per $1,000. These cost differences also result in a very significant disparity of local levy dollars per student available in each district. In 2014, eleven districts had no local levy. Among those that did collect local levies, the per student amount ranged from $57 to $8,946.
About half of that funding goes for either additional staff or additional staff salaries. Which brings us to the connection with the labor unrest we witnessed this fall. So far teacher associations in three districts have gone out on strike. Several other districts came close; and given the status of negotiations in other districts, there could be more strikes yet this fall. While there were unique teacher concerns in each district, the common theme was more pay.
To be clear, Washington teachers should be paid more than what the state currently allocates. According to a guest editorial in The Everett Herald, even with the significant increase in local salary enhancement that occurred as a result of their recent strike, Seattle’s average inflation-adjusted teacher salary will be less at the end of the new contract than it was in 2011-12.
The problem with the significant salary increases negotiated in many districts this fall is that they are taking us farther from the Supreme Court’s directive of full state funding. We can also expect to see a domino effect next year as teachers who didn’t bargain this year try to catch up with what happened in neighboring districts.
That brings us to the shortage of teachers to fill vacancies in school districts across the state. There are multiple reasons that the demand for new teachers is outpacing the supply. One factor is increased retirements. Many teachers delayed their retirement during the Great Recession, so we are now seeing a bow wave of retirees. In addition, the state has also allocated more teachers in grades K-3 to lower average class sizes. A third factor is that we tend to lose a lot of new teachers. According to the Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB) Annual Report, we consistently lose 50% of new teachers within their first five years of teaching. Clearly, retaining more of our new teachers has to be one of the strategies to address the shortage.
The PESB Annual Report also provides district-level data on the percent of new teachers that leave each district at the end of their first year of teaching. Combining that data with the most recent OSPI report that lists additional local salary, an interesting relationship emerges. That data is provided below in Table 1.
The OSPI salary data used above also includes the number of teachers for each district. Using that as a proxy for school district size in Table 2, we see an even more stark contrast emerge.
This brings me to the final connection, the legislative listening tour. The Senate has scheduled seven 2-hour meetings around the state to hear stakeholder input on their efforts to come up with the court-ordered plan to address the McCleary decision. In each meeting, a panel of local association representatives has been asked to answer a series of questions. The first one is “Should the State fund a localization factor in a new compensation system?” That factor is outlined in Section 306 of Senate Bill 6130. It uses county-level comparable salary information collected by the Employment Security Department to create a salary enhancement factor for districts in high-cost counties.
A good case can be made that some districts need higher salaries to attract teachers to work in a higher cost area. Based on the information provided above, however, a similar case can be made that additional salary may be needed, especially in smaller districts, to attract and retain teachers to work in those areas. Thus far there have been no legislative proposals to address that aspect of a differential salary allocation. If left unattended in any McCleary plan, small rural districts will continue to be at a significant and perhaps growing disadvantage in a very competitive teacher market.