The Legislature funneled nearly $8 billion in extra money into K-12 education over the last two years. But lawmakers are going to be far less generous this year.
The approximately $52 billion budget proposals approved by the state House of Representatives and Senate in the last two weeks leave many districts short of the financial support they requested in January. Their requests included hundreds of millions of dollars more for special education and upward of $16 million for school safety.
“None of the legislation, although steps in the right direction, will be material changes in our budget,” Longview Schools spokesman Rick Parrish said Thursday.
But many legislators argue that the primary issue of school funding was resolved with the “McCleary fix” reached last year, and there is some sentiment that school districts agreed to unsustainable teacher and staff labor contracts last fall and are now crying poverty.
“Some of the school districts that have negotiated teacher contracts that put them way under water in a year or two don’t believe they got enough out of this,” said state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. “But they will have to deal with the contracts they made. I’m just happy none of the districts in our area negotiated those kinds of deals. I think (our) school districts were more careful ... but there will be some very hard reckonings in other parts of the state. They want the state to bail them out.”
Still, some small boosts to school funding may yet pass.
“School funding will always be an issue, but the State Supreme Court has said that the McCleary decision is satisfied, so people who are claiming it hasn’t been are wrong,” Walsh said. “Is there some fine-tuning to do? Yes, and we are doing that. But I think the problems that were (highlighted) by the court decision have been remedied.”
The McCleary ruling forced the state to fully fund basic education, although what constitutes “basic education” has always been something of a moving target. For one thing, for example, some educators say the McCleary fix overlooked special education funding.
“(Special education) is supposed to be part of state basic education,” said state teachers union spokeswoman Linda Mullen. “They knew when they passed McCleary it was short, and they didn’t do enough.”
The State Superintendent’s Office estimates that the 295 districts in Washington collectively spend $300 to $400 million more on special education than the state currently funds. Both budget proposals fall far short of what’s really needed, educators say.
The House-approved proposal would invest about $72 million in special education, while the Senate’s budget bill provides about $156 million, according to the state association for school administrators. (Only about $86 million of the Senate’s apportionment would go directly to schools. The rest would be used for the special ed “safety net” fund and other, smaller projects.)
“For years, we have heard from educators, parents — even legislators themselves — that Washington State is not meeting the needs of our special education students. Today’s Senate budget, and the previously released House budget, does very little to address that concern,” said the state school administrators association Executive Director Joel Aune in a prepared statement on March 29.
Aune stressed that every school district in the state is “running in the red when it comes to special education.”
The Longview School District uses $1.4 million in local money to make up for the difference between what it receives from the state and what it really costs to fund special ed for the district. The Senate’s budget proposal would provide about $300,000 more in state special education funding for Longview — just about one-quarter of what administrators estimate is really needed.
State Sen. Dean Takko, a Longview Democrat, said that while the budget falls short of meeting all the special ed needs, “it’s certainly better than it was.”
“Everyone realizes we have to something more for special ed. Now most districts will tell us we haven’t done enough, and they have a good argument,” Takko said. “Special education is expensive.”
But there is a limited amount of money that must fund several other programs, Takko said. “We have to prioritize the retired senior versus the special ed student versus the mental health issues we have. … All these things are competing. If it wasn’t for that, we would spend all sorts of money on education,” Takko said. “The budget kind of ends up like peanut butter. You spread it out as far as you can, but you can never cover the whole piece of bread.”
Nonetheless, the Senate Democratic Caucus, in a Thursday news release, emphasized how its budget “honors commitments made in 2017 to increase basic education funding.”
“The budget represents a $4.5 billion increase in K-12 education spending above the last biennial budget, including a $937 million increase for special education,” the release says.
In addition to inadequately funding special education, the budget proposals also fail to do enough to improve school safety, said Mullen, the teacher union president.
“Our legislative priority this year for K-12 education was to add school nurses, counselors and mental health professionals ... to help with the mental health and safety issues of our kids ... and both budgets fall short in that,” she said.
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The proposals range from $5.4 million to $3.1 million in funding for school safety improvements, including hiring more staff, according to the teachers union. Union representatives said that spending is “not satisfying.”
“Our students really need help,” Mullen said. “It would be helpful to get those funds to support them.”
Walsh, a strong supporter for improving school safety and adding more school resource officers, said the lack of funding for school security is “the biggest negative” in the House proposal.
The state could still help schools hire more counselors and support staff without funding it as a formal line item, though, Mullen said.
“I think one of the things that has gotten lost in the conversation about McCleary funding … is that the state funds basic education, and local levies provide for things that the state either can’t or won’t fund,” Mullen said. “That’s things like nurses, counselors and psychologists,” among other things.
But funding those extras can be a “heavy burden for local districts, particularly because they are limited on how much they can raise in local levy funds,” Mullen said.
As part of its overhaul of the education funding model, the McCleary fix imposed a local levy lid, capping the local school tax rates at $1.50 per $1,000. The intention was to shift the bulk of the financial burden of schools back onto the state, as the constitution mandates.
However, the levy lid slashed local budgets in some places, leaving small, rural districts like Longview and Kelso with less revenue overall.
Both budgets propose lifting the lid in some way, which would allow districts to raise more money locally — a feature the teachers union supports. According to the union’s estimates, the House and Senate budget proposals would increase local levy authority by $734 million and $360 million, respectively.
Longview and Kelso school officials oppose any change to the lid, noting that it would create a “McCleary 2.0” by shifting the financial responsibility for K-12 back onto local school districts. Legislators like Walsh and Takko agree.
Takko said that property-rich districts are able to raise more in the local levy than property poor districts. While raising the levy lid might provide more revenue for districts, it doesn’t solve the inequity issue, he said.
“The schools in my district are not going to raise anywhere near the money that the schools up in the Puget sound area (will raise),” Takko said.
Walsh added that “the whole point of the McCleary decision was that high levy lid limits are inherently unfair for low-property-value districts.”
Instead, the districts with lost revenues could be helped through a “hold harmless” agreement that would require the Legislature to make up the funding lost to the levy lid.
Kelso may not receive any more help based on the formula the state is using to determine hold harmless eligibility, Walsh said. But the agreement would benefit Longview, Castle Rock, Wahkiakum and several other districts in this area, Walsh said.
The school chiefs impressed upon me this was their top priority, so it became my top priority,” Walsh said.
The House proposal puts $58.4 million toward hold harmless payments, but there’s nothing of the like in the Senate proposal.
“It’s got to survive the conference negotiation. I believe it will, but it’s not quite done yet,” Walsh said.
The House and Senate both approved separate budget proposals, so the the two houses must agree on a single plan before forwarding the budget bill to Gov. Jay Inslee for his approval.
In the meantime, educators are “continuing to have conversations with our legislators” to work out the kinks with McCleary and get the funding they need, Mullen said.
“We aren’t going to give up. We never give up until it’s over,” she said. “And then we catch our breath and figure out what we will do next.”