Their battle cry was "no more cuts" because they said too many state dollars have been siphoned from education amid a recession-driven collapse of tax collections.
But the state budget tells a different story.
The state is on course to pour $789 million more into the school system in this two-year budget compared to the last biennium, though it will wind up with less classroom-related education for those dollars.
It's a numeric conundrum for the governor, lawmakers and educators. Here they are trying to convince a skeptical public of how budget cuts are hurting students while the balance sheets show more taxpayer dollars are getting pumped into the K-12 system.
"There is no question that how we fund our schools is exceedingly complex and that complexity has made it difficult to show what's going on," said Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee.
"Programs have been cut. They have been eliminated. Class sizes are going up. There's no question about it," he said. "I believe we are not funding K-12 the way that K-12 should be funded. Furthermore, we are not spending the money we are receiving to get its greatest effect."
Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, said they should not focus on whether the amount of money is rising or falling but if it is enough to help students achieve at the levels they need to succeed.
"Looking at the numbers is not at all that indicative of what challenges face the school system. We've had to spend less than natural growth would suggest we spend," he said. "When I visit classrooms I see teachers buying their own supplies and creatively seeking ways to teach classes with more students than before."
But the spending totals are at the center of budget debates in the House of Representatives and Senate. And the perception of whether cuts such as shortening the school year are truly necessary will be on the minds of voters should they be asked next year to prevent such actions by hiking the sales tax.
Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education for the Washington Policy Center, said lawmakers need to own the fact they are spending more and take the time to explain why they think it's not enough.
"I find it discouraging. What they're doing is repeating this distortion that their budget is being cut when they know they are getting more money," she said. "I think it's going to backfire on them. People are pretty savvy."
The two-year budget signed in June by Gov. Chris Gregoire funnels $13.78 billion into the education system. Most of it finds its way into elementary and secondary schools operated in 295 districts. That total also covers college prep programs like Running Start, pre-kindergarten education, bilingual instruction and bus transportation.
All together it is $789 million more than the 2009-11 budget when $12.99 billion was spent, with much of the increase covering items that lawmakers and the governor say the state cannot avoid paying.
The biggest chunk, $428 million, is the state's share for pensions of current and retired employees, according to an analysis of the budget prepared by the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program Committee. There's also $53 million to cover higher costs of scoring tests for the state's assessment system and $36 million for projected increases in school bus replacement.
Rising enrollment is the other major item driving up the amount of money spent on schools.
Today, there are nearly 1 million students in the elementary and secondary schools. It is expected there will be 6,455 more students this school year and another 16,722 in the school year after that. To the state, those additional students will cost roughly $158 million.
That figure is based on what the state estimates it spends on each elementary and secondary student -- a number that changes annually and is at the core of some of the political debate.
State spending per student has risen every year since 2000 with one exception. That came in the 2008 school year after lawmakers axed funds for class-size reduction under Initiative 728.
In the 2009-11 budget, the state spent $6,562 per student the first year and $6,639 in the second. For the current budget, the amount climbs to $6,742 this fiscal year and $6,840 for the next.
Cuts on the table
Gregoire's plan for filling a $1.4 billion budget shortfall includes stripping $340 million out of the K-12 system.
She proposes to save $99 million by shaving four days off the school year and another $152 million by paying less in tax subsidies to school districts with lower property values.
She also would trim or eliminate several specialized instruction programs funded with state grants, which assist at-risk students as well as those who are bound for college.
Gregoire wants voters to increase the sales tax to buy back the big-ticket items like the loss of school days.
If the state is laying out more dollars per student, people like Finne question why these cuts and a sales tax hike are on the table.
"There is a perception problem to overcome, and to play games with four less days of school unless you pay more is not right," she said. "If you're not going to be straight about the fact that you're getting more money, how is that going to want to make us tax ourselves to pay for it?"
Gregoire spokeswoman Karina Shagren said the governor isn't playing politics with any of the proposed education cuts.
"The governor didn't make any recommendation lightly -- and she certainly didn't propose specific cuts to make a point to the public," she said. "The governor had originally proposed increasing class sizes to save tax dollars. It was the superintendents who said they'd rather shorten the school year than add students to classrooms, so at their request, the governor made the switch in her budget she gave to the Legislature."
Districts getting less
While the state spending per student is charting upwards, what it sends to the Everett School District is headed down.
The district received $114.3 million from the state for the 2010 school year, which was $4.3 million less than it got a year earlier, according to figures provided by Jeffrey D. Moore, the district's executive director for finance and operations.
Those state dollars are being spread thinner amongst the students.
In 2007, the state allotment worked out to $6,715 per each of the 17,647 students; last year, it was $6,403 as the enrollment had reached 17,863.
With state dollars not going as far, Everett, like many other school districts, has turned to voters for additional money from property tax levies. Voters have been supportive, but it doesn't mean they don't wonder if the district has cut its spending.
In terms of employees alone, Moore said the district has pared the equivalent of 97 full-time certificated staff positions since the fall of 2008 and laid off classified staff as well.
More than money
"Everybody is focused on the money," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn. "But it's also how important does the public think education is for the future of our state."
For him, the bottom line is that the amount of money the state sends to school districts doesn't go as far as it once did in part because education is much more than reading, writing and arithmetic.
Educators are dealing with students with greater academic needs. More are poor or don't speak English as a first language, or both, which means extra instruction time.
Many schools are paying for security officers to roam middle school and high school campuses. More students are getting squeezed into larger classes because there's not enough state aid to replace retiring teachers, let alone hire new ones, he said.
It may not be as dire as some of those hundreds of protesters asserted, but it's serious.
"Is there enough resources to hold the school year? Yes," he said. "Is there enough resources to meet the high educational standards we expect our kids to meet today? We will need more resources to do that."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com
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