Thursday, April 25, 2013

House plan has edge

Offers kids clarity and commitment; requires significant funds

Yes HB 2051, Implementing basic education expenditures
Yes HB 2038, Investing in the education legacy trust account (end certain taxing preferences)
Within the Washington State PTA, we are talking revenue.

When we helped pass the basic education funding bill in 2009 (HB 2261), and years earlier when we joined the group that sued the state for underfunding its schools, we knew we were asking for a significant investment in K-12 education. Billions of dollars, not millions.

We knew this because of the constant fund-raising and over-reliance on local excess levies.

In the years since 2009, we watched as budget cuts tore multi-billion dollar size holes in education, healthcare, and other essential community services.  In the past three years, more than $10 billion has been cut from social services. Close to another $3 billion has been cut from K-12 education, resulting in school closures, overcrowding, neglected buildings, and the loss of services. We say it all the time but it bears repeating: The state doesn’t even cover a basic six-period day in middle and high school.

That’s a choice.

The state needs to start paying its K-12 bill, and it needs to be honest with the public about the costs involved and the legal requirements around state funding, as opposed to local excess levies. Because something happens when the state comes up short: Inequity becomes the norm and kids and communities who most need a leg up get left behind.

What the state (doesn’t) fund

Washington State is 36th in the nation in overall obligation of state and local taxes. If Washington’s budget had grown at the same rate as personal income over the past decade, the 2011-13 budget would have been $13 billion higher – more than enough to cover basic education and other children’s needs.

Instead, we’re near the bottom in funding public schools. We have some of the most crowded classrooms in the nation and our state funding structure is only designed to support learning through tenth-grade expectations.

Yes – tenth grade. As a state, we don’t expect or budget for high school students to take four years of math, or science, let alone multiple years of a world language or art. One of the tests some seniors are struggling to pass so they can graduate is for algebra, a course many kids take in middle school. Our school board directors and superintendents insist high schools can’t accommodate three sciences and 2 labs. Not for all kids. Not with current funding.

All the talk about STEM and rigor, and getting kids ready for college and career? Funding for that relies on grants. On fund-raising. On going back to local voters every few years and asking, “Please, will you support the kids this time around?”

Parents have to fund-raise for the school, then turn around and fund-raise to get the local levy passed. If the legislature were to push every tax package out to voters to approve, parents would have to fund-raise and volunteer for those campaigns as well.

Our children need stability

In the land of Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing we ask our parents to waive signs on street corners and march in rallies to cover basic school costs. We ask them to sell wrapping paper, hold auctions and otherwise hustle to keep the schools supplied, or bring in money for a tutor. PTAs are scrambling to provide science materials, PE equipment, and reading and math specialists. And the need just keeps growing.

Here is a reality check: Forty-six percent – nearly half – of Washington’s public school children qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

  • In Spokane that figure is 57 percent
  • In Yakima it is 83
  • In Aberdeen it is 67
Contrast that with Seattle, where 43 percent of students are on free or reduced price lunch.
  • In Anacortes, it’s 34 percent
  • In the Lake Washington School District (Kirkland, Redmond), it is 14 percent
Much of the fund-raising and sign-waving benefits a Washington minority, and it’s not the poor one.

So yes, Washington State PTA supports revenue. These are public schools, and legally they need to be general and uniform in quality – across town and across the state. This state needs to honor its paramount duty to provide for each child’s education. It needs to do so in a stable, equitable manner, and it needs to do so without gutting infrastructure and services that children rely on.

Stuck in a box

The state has limited options to comply with the McCleary ruling. We can spend reserves (the House plan includes this option); we can reduce expenditures elsewhere (we have already cut billions, and will likely cut more), we can borrow (the Senate plan includes this option), we can raise taxes.

As to the type of taxes, Washington is limited there as well. An income tax requires a constitutional amendment; even if the state pursued one, relief for schools and services would be years off. Under existing law, we are pretty much limited to a sales tax (we already rely on it for half our revenue, that’s twice as much as other states); property taxes; and Washington’s “B&O tax” on businesses.

Over the years the state has granted about 640 exemptions to this last tax, collectively worth billions. The House has chosen to rethink some of those preferences (weighing them against the state’s duty to fund education) and use resulting savings to invest in K-12 and higher education. We support that effort. (We would also support a long-overdue revamp of our tax system to relieve pressure on the B&O tax and move away from the regressive sales tax. WSPTA has had tax reform on its platform off and on for decades.)

But this year, we have limited options.

Divide between House and Senate

The state has priced its core obligation to students and the tally is about $3.5 billion extra, annually, into the program of basic education, to be phased in by 2018. (Some analyses put that figure much higher; it all depends on salaries.) These billions are from the baseline BEFORE cuts started in 2009. They don't include “enhancement” funding for professional development, school turnaround, or teacher cost of living raises.
"Basic education" is the bare bones cost to cover instruction and essential support; transportation; and materials, supplies and operating costs. This figure came after years of study (Washington Learns, started in 2005; Basic Education Finance Task Force, started in 2007), court testimony and legislation.
In 2009, while the McCleary lawsuit worked its way through the court, the legislature agreed on a funding framework to ensure it met its legal duties around education. Key to this was investment in middle and high school so the state could implement more rigorous and enriching graduation requirements – ones that aligned with college and workplace expectations, not 10th grade. It followed up with a phase-in plan in 2010 that focused on K-3 costs. Together the bills highlighted the bulk of the “basic education gap” between what the state was funding, and what it should be funding.

Four years later, the Senate is proposing putting $700 million towards this several billion dollar funding gap. The House is proposing about $1.3 billion towards this gap.

The state needs to start paying its bill, and it needs to be honest with the public about the costs involved and the requirements around state funding. Both House and Senate fall well short of the billions needed, but the House invests at a higher rate and more realistically can get us to full implementation by 2018.

HOUSE PLAN: The House phases  in funding in a linear manner for increased instructional time; transportation; materials, supplies and operating costs; full-day kindergarten; and smaller K-3 class sizes. Transportation would be fully funded at the end of the two years, followed by materials, supplies and operating costs in 2016, and other major elements by 2018. The House also adds counseling and family engagement; invests in professional development; and boosts salaries for classified and administrative staff.

The House has created an implementation schedule for certain core costs. This doesn’t include all elements of basic education, but it factors in major ones. The legislation to implement this plan is HB 2051. (Click here for the fiscal note. )

SENATE PLAN: The Senate, meanwhile, has tabled the discussion around full funding of basic education for yet another session. Four years after passing HB 2261 off its floor, the Senate does not offer a plan for picking up the costs associated with middle school and high school. It is quiet on just when students will have access to a 24-credit career- and college-ready diploma. It partially funds all-day kindergarten, but does not set a schedule for full funding. It does not reduce K-3 class size, or touch on many of the other elements needed in a comprehensive, basic education.

Both House and Senate budgets leave basic costs unfunded in the next biennium, but the House commits to a schedule for the next five years. It is not clear whether the Senate supports the vision of basic education that Washington State PTA has worked decades to implement, that the legislature passed into law four years ago (after 4 years of study), and that the supreme court hailed as “promising reform” that if funded would satisfy the court.

The Senate does, however, set aside funds to help turn around our most-persistently struggling schools and it funds professional development for educators. The Senate has also passed bills that focus on the need for evidence-based instruction and intervention at all schools.

Funding and accountability

Since 2010, the House and Senate have taken different approaches to education, with the House more focused on the legal requirements around funding and the Senate more focused on accountability. Washington State PTA’s top priority blends these two approaches, and we want both chambers to work together to ensure basic costs are covered and that our schools implement best practices in a systemic manner.

K-12 education is the state’s paramount duty and our association is committed to ensuring clarity and accountability, both in funding and outcomes.

What we’re asking for

We don’t differentiate between raising money for education and raising money for “all the other stuff” that kids rely on. The transfer of funds into basic education will be significant. At the end of the process, we want kids covered.

Between fund-raising and volunteering our time, our association raises tens of millions of dollars to support children. (Nationally, parent volunteerism is valued at $54 billion a year. Some of our Washington PTAs add $300 to $500 per child, per year to the school budget, just in fund-raising.) We saw a need for stable, public investment in kids before 2009 and we watched as billions were cut from both education and social services.

Both the House and Senate offer more money for K-12 this year, but Washington State PTA supports a specific vision for K-12 education, one that takes an evidence-based approach to early learning that extends from home visits with parents of newborns, to access to quality preschool, to full-day kindergarten and small K-3 class sizes, to strong family engagement and home-school partnerships.
We support investments in middle and high school so all children have stable, equitable access to a basic 6-period day that prepares them for career or college, and gives them the room to take more math, more science, more arts and more electives that will help them find their passion and transform into our leaders of tomorrow.

When we backed HB 2261 in 2009, we backed a smart plan that gives voters clarity about what they are buying; that meets basic needs of students; and gives all children the opportunity to complete a 24-credit career- and college-ready diploma.

We want that plan implemented.

So far, the House budget, and specifically HB 2051 and HB 2038, are the best proposals to to do that.

- Ramona Hattendorf, Washington State PTA, government relations coordinator

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