Editorial: Focus on struggling students could resolve other issues

By The Herald Editorial Board

Figuring out how to pay for major funding reforms for the state’s K-12 education system might not be the toughest task facing the Legislature this session.

The state is nearing a 2018 deadline to meet a state Supreme Court mandate, also referred to as the McCleary decision, which held in 2012 that the state wasn’t meeting its paramount duty under the state constitution to amply fund education. Allocating more money, alone, won’t resolve the problems or satisfy the court’s justices, who have fined the state $100,000 a day since a 2014 finding of contempt, a fine that now totals more than $51 million.

There are vast complexities in drafting reforms that end the state’s unconstitutional reliance on local school levies to provide a significant portion of salaries for teachers, administrators and other staff; outline what should be considered basic education and the state’s responsibility; assure greater equity among the state’s school districts; and develop an equitable and fair model for pay for teachers and other educators.

A new report from Washington Roundtable, an advocacy group led by senior executives of the state’s major employers, could provide insight in addressing some of those issues by focusing on the needs of the state’s struggling schools and students.

A Washington Roundtable report in November estimated that the state can expect to see 740,000 job openings in the next five years, but nearly 80 percent will be jobs that will require a post-secondary degree or other certification. Currently only 31 percent of state high school students move beyond a high school diploma to earn a college degree or other training certification. With the goal of increasing the share of students with post-secondary credentials to 70 percent by 2030, the Roundtable’s report seeks more attention and resources paid the state’s struggling schools and students.

The state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the report notes, has identified 255 low-performing schools. But even in better-performing schools, there are students who struggle. About 200,000 students of the state’s 1 million school children don’t meet the state’s standards in English language arts, and more than 225,000 tested below proficiency in math.

To improve schools and raise student achievement, the report recommends four strategies:

Enhancing support and accountability for struggling schools;

Increasing the number of excellent teachers and the access for struggling students to those teachers;

Building on the state’s emphasis on early learning, particularly for students from low-income families; and

Improving financing for the state’s schools, kindergarten through 12th grade.

All four deserve consideration, and the group’s suggestions on education funding should be included in discussions as the Legislature moves forward.

The Washington Roundtable, which was assisted in the report by national education advocates and researchers Education First and Public Impact, recommends moving away from the state’s current funding model, which it says generally allocates money per building, based on the number of teachers and other staff, with districts allocating funding at their discretion as part of local bargaining contracts.

The report recommends instead a model that allocates base funding per student, then provides for additional funding at individual schools for students with greater needs, such as those from low-income families, English-language learners and those with other needs. Those dollars would follow students as they progress from school to school.

Allocating funding per students and their needs, the Roundtable report says, would provide better sustained resources for schools with higher percentages of struggling students and may also help those schools attract and keep experienced teachers, a concern for rural and urban districts alike that can’t offer competitive salaries because of the funding inequities across the state, in part caused by over-reliance on local school levies.

Lawmakers are having to consider a range of issues regarding pay and benefits for teachers, administrators and other school staff, including how contracts will be negotiated, whether to adjust pay based on a region’s cost of living and how districts will be able to use local levy dollars.

By focusing greater attention and resources on the state’s struggling students and schools, the Roundtable report may also help lawmakers come to resolution this session on some of the other issues they face.

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