The release of the annual report documents and ranks each state’s effort to improve public education. A couple things stood out to me in the "Washington State Highlights 2014” report. In terms of K-12 achievement (p. 8), Washington ranks 8th and 11th on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth grade math and reading tests, and 7th and 8th on the eighth grade math and reading tests. Overall, that puts our students’ performance among the top 10 in the country.
That commendable performance has been achieved despite our state’s very low ranking for education funding (p. 10). In that category, Washington is 41st in both adjusted per-pupil expenditures and state expenditures on K-12 as a percent of state taxable resources (i.e., funding effort). In other words, Washington’s education system provides a great “bang for the buck.” As a frame of reference for those numbers, we continue to lag well behind Alabama and Mississippi in both funding and funding effort. And yet, seven of those two state’s NAEP scores rank at or below 47th in the nation.
At the other end of the continuum, the top performing state was Massachusetts whose $13,127 per student funding is 42 percent, or nearly $3,900 more than provided to each of our students. These facts led to a January 9 editorial by The Seattle Times that posed the following question: If school spending here matched Massachusetts, would we be top in the nation?
As compelling as the “Quality Counts 2014” information is, there’s really not much new in this year’s report. The trends I’ve highlighted have existed in most of the recent annual reports. Given that fact, it’s fascinating that the Legislature’s response has been to focus on more reforms, more accountability, and more unfunded mandates, rather than addressing the fundamental underfunding of Washington’s schools. That brings me to the second big event from last week, the Supreme Court’s January 9, 2014, Order in the McCleary Case.
Most readers will recall that in 2012, the Supreme Court retained jurisdiction in this case to ensure that the Legislature followed through on its commitments to fully fund public education by 2018. As part of that jurisdiction, the Court has required a progress report at the conclusion of each legislative session. Last week they released a Supreme Court Order in response to the most recent legislative report. This order removed any ambiguity that may have existed regarding the Court’s intent about the Legislature’s McCleary remedy.
While the Order recognized the Legislature for making some funding progress, it was extremely critical about their pace of improvement and the lack of any detailed plan for how they plan to achieve full funding by 2018. The Court also provided multiple examples of how the Legislature’s most recent actions failed to meet the constitutional provision of ample funding and directed the Legislature to: “submit, no later than April 30, 2014, a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-18 school year” (p. 8). It also suggested the need for additional funding in the current short Legislative Session to demonstrate the states' “good faith commitment toward fulfilling its constitutional promise” (p. 8).
With this most recent Supreme Court Order, we have clearly entered a historically significant stage in the McCleary Case. Given both that development and the remarkable results highlighted in the “Quality Counts 2014”report, one can only wonder, is anyone in the Legislature listening?