Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Still asking: Make the hard choices

NOTE: The following letter was sent to all state legislators as the 2013 special session got underway. Once again, the regular session ended with no operating budget and no shared vision for phasing in basic education spending, despite a court order. Fully funding 2009's HB 2261 (part of WSPTA's top priority) would satisfy the court. The Senate Majority and Gov. Inslee both held press conferences Monday, May 13. Links are at the end of this letter.

TAKE ACTION: Stop Delaying on Basic Education (Armchair advocacy! Just click, send and share)

"Our school district has a long history of failing levies.  We recently passed out an M&O levy on a second try, by the skin of our teeth. It took parents, teachers, and volunteers countless hours of pounding the pavement, waving signs, making phone calls, and begging the community to give our kids another chance.  Had this levy not passed, our district would have been on the fast track to dissolution.”

Dear Legislators,

Our children have a problem.

The “stable and dependable” revenue that the state allocates to pay for basic education doesn’t cover the bill. To cover costs, schools and parents have to ask communities to pass an excess levy every few years. Increasingly, they also have to solicit donations to cover costs.

If the levy fails, if the auction is a bust, our children’s education is jeopardized.

The above quote is from a PTA leader in the Battle Ground School District in Vancouver.  Last year, her district spent $8,827 per student, about $900 less than the state average.  The local excess levy is just 15 percent of the budget, but it’s a percentage her district can’t absorb. She continues:

“We were assured by representatives from ESD 112 that it would take a couple of years to actually happen, but we were also assured that ‘The quality of education the kids receive during the time of transition will not be the primary concern.  We will solely be focusing on the financial solvency of the district.’
“I don't know about you, but that statement made me sick to my stomach. Had the worst happened and the levy failed, we would have had more 13,000 kids thrown into limbo, with no guarantee of an education that would serve them in the future. We would have had 21 schools worth of teachers, administrators, and support staff added to the unemployment line in one fail swoop. 
“I cannot comprehend how this situation can go unnoticed and/or ignored."
-  Kimberli Swenson, Pleasant Valley PTA Vice President, Vancouver
In the Washington State PTA we realize this isn’t news to you. We know you are familiar with the constitution and last year’s McCleary ruling. But still, it bears repeating. Because from the outside, this is what families and children hear:
  • We can’t pay for education if it means cuts to other programs/rethinking tax breaks.
  • We can’t pay for high school, or books or counselors until we reform the system.
  • Maybe all kids don’t really need the funding.
  • Maybe we can help some kids, and maybe that will be enough.
Helping some kids is not enough.   Failing to pay for education because you can’t resolve approaches to budgeting is not defensible, neither is leaving it to parents and non-profits to cover what is legally the state’s first and foremost responsibility.

Per the constitution:

Article IX, SECTION 1, PREAMBLE. It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.

Article IX, SECTION 2, PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM. The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.

The reality in our schools:

“A few years ago, the college and career counselors were cut. The career center was still open, but there was no staff to serve kids. The staffing went from 2 full time employees to 1, to .5, to none. As is often the case, the PTA stepped in to volunteer.”
- Lisa Surowiec, PTA volunteer, Shoreline

“Over half of our local units’ annual budget (51 percent) is put directly to student needs. These grants include instructional assistance for struggling students, classroom grants for much needed equipment and educational materials, as well as support for college and career counseling.  In addition, we provide 5-6 percent of our budget as donations to help cover social service needs for our school community.  These include food, clothing, school supplies and scholarships to those with limited means.”
-Kathy Ducey, President, Shorewood High School PTSA

Both Kathy and Lisa are parents in the Shoreline School District, which spends $9,943 per student, a little over the state average. A quarter of its budget comes from the local excess levy, and still fund-raisers have to step in and parents have to donate their labor to meet basic student needs.

“Two other volunteers and I worked the equivalent of a full-time person last year attempting to help students find scholarships, be aware of future opportunities, and know when to do what (take tests, visit colleges) to be ready for applications and graduation.  Now, there is one staff person between our two high schools.  One person to help 3000-plus students search for colleges or jobs, give advice, and help them transition out of high school.”
-Marianne Stephens, Parent in Shoreline

Again, we realize none if this is new. In 2009, the Legislature tackled the funding issue, and with a bipartisan vote expanded the program of basic education and pledged to pay for it by 2018.

  • Your body said it would put money into the early grades because the evidence showed all kids needed a strong foundation and too many weren’t getting it. Longitudinal studies show us children who have access to preschool, full-day K, small K-3 class size and strong family engagement graduate at higher rates, go to college at higher rates, and land higher paying jobs. The integrated approach is key.

  •  Your body pledged to give all children access to college- and career-aligned graduation requirements because the evidence showed too many of our high school graduates did not have the skills employers and colleges required, and too few Washington graduates were landing jobs with Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing. Too few were starting their own businesses.

  • Your body said it would budget to cover essentials like adequate instructional time, staffing, getting kids to school, buying curriculum and covering the heating bill – all areas the state has left underfunded for years.

But since 2009, the Legislature cut student achievement funds (“I-728”) and with it money to keep K-3 class sizes small, expand access to full-day kindergarten and train teachers. The Legislature cut allocations mid-year, leaving school districts scrambling to cover contracts. The Legislature cut salaries, forcing districts to negotiate furlough days or swallow more losses. All these cuts came after the Superior Court ruling that school funding was inadequate. The state lost the McCleary suit on pre-recession funding. By the time the Supreme Court affirmed McCleary, the state was in the hole billions, and then more billions.

“Our PTA gave the school a grant, in the amount of $48,826, thus ensuring our students continued access to this valued service (elementary school counselors).  Our PTA was fortunate to have saved funds that we were able to use but have since significantly depleted our savings with this expense.  It is unacceptable, and untenable, that our PTA should have to spend over half our yearly budget on an expense the district should be funding. “
  - Andrea Bergan, John Rodgers PTA president, Seattle

Andrea is a parent in Seattle Public Schools. Her K-5 school is budgeted to spend $6,784 per student this year. Ten percent of John Rogers’ school budget comes from “other.”

Here are the big ticket items another PTA raised for another Seattle school (Sacajawea Elementary). The total PTA budget comes in at about $100,000:
  • Reading Intervention Specialist: $30,462
  • Volunteer Coordinator/Enrichment Program Coordinator: $13,600
  • Tutoring: $13,000
  • Instrumental Music: $9,626        
  • Curriculum Enrichment: $8,000
  • K-3 Music Program: $5,000
  • Multi-Arts Supplies:  $5,000
  • Field Trip support:  $2,200
  • Family Partnership Outreach: $1,200
  • Spring Arts Festival: $1,200

Here are sample line items from Issaquah PTAs:
  • Cougar Ridge Elementary PTA: $36,000 to support curriculum
  • Endeavor Elementary PTA: $26,000 in maintenance and supply grants
  • Discovery Elementary PTA: $80,000 for curriculum and classroom support
  • Newcastle Elementary PTA:  $16,000 for the computer lab; $10,000 for PE equipment
“Our PTA was just able to make a $27,000 donation to the district to purchase 50 refurbished laptops to ensure that more than one class in our school could have access to computers at a time.  Our PTA spends over $12,000 a year on classroom supplies, library books, and art enrichment (completely staffed by volunteers).  That doesn’t include all the additional supplies like backpacks, notebooks, pencils and paper donated directly to students in our school supply drives.
“When I hear that some argue that we don’t really need to fund HB 2261 (2009 basic education funding bill), I look at how our district received about $150 million in state funding in 2007-2008, yet spent closer to $275 million. I look at how much of my time as a PTA member is spent on fundraising.  I remember that my district has a highly capable program while many others do not.  Our current system is far from fair and equitable.”
-David Berg, WSPTA legislative team, Puyallup
In 2009-10, the year the Legislature agreed to redefine basic education, the community in Lake Washington School District donated $4.6 million, or $1,875 per student. The money came from PTAs, booster clubs, individuals, Lake Washington Schools Foundation, businesses, churches and other foundations. Lake Washington spent about $9,300 per student that year; 27 percent of its budget came from the local excess levy and “other.” Last year, the district spent $9,109 per student.

“We have asked the district to provide continued training to all staff (on teaching children with reading disorders.)  … The district advises that the funds do not exist.  Students with dyslexia are, in some way, “low hanging fruit.”  The science tells us that with proper instruction, these students can be taught to read.  But without proper instruction, many students struggle with reading, and while many are not failing bad enough to receive special education support, they are barely able to keep up and have very low self-esteem.”
- Margaret Adams, Dyslexia Parent Advisory Committee (LWSD), Kirkland
The quality and availability of pre-K to third-grade early learning, and of college prep and career education, can’t rest on inequitable and unstable local levies, private fund-raising, or grants for the select few.

Our state has embraced reform, yet it doesn’t cover training and costs involved in screening and intervention for struggling readers. And while we have adopted career- and college-ready learning standards, and while the Legislature is asking schools to “opt kids up” into accelerated high school classes like AP and UW in the High School, as a body you still only budget for about five periods a day in middle and high school.  This makes it very difficult to offer a range of courses.

All those great STEM classes, all that opportunity – it’s on the parents to waive those signs. To ask taxpayers, please, give our kids another chance.

Those of us outside the Legislature – the ones manning the Move-a-thons and the phone banks -- need to hear that the state will live up to its promises and move forward with plans to give every child the basic education he or she needs. We need to hear that you understand “basic education” is not just an early learning issue, and not just a class size or salary issue. Basic education covers a child throughout the K-12 years and is about giving all of our children opportunity – no matter their zip code – and to do so with stable, dependable revenue. The basic education bill, 2009’s HB 2261, is the one cited by name in the McCleary ruling; it is the “promising reform” that if funded would satisfy the court.

The studies have gone on for years. The discussion, the indecision, the inaction. Families deserve to know when the money will come. If you spend a billion or less on the program of basic education this year, how will you close the funding gap by 2018?

Those of us out here need to see that legislative calls for more “reform” come with funding to train our educators, and to screen, diagnose and intervene with our students. A “C” or “D” label on a school shouldn’t hinge on the PTA line item, “Tutoring: $13,000.”

Out here, we need to see that you are committed to the constitution and carrying out your paramount duty to amply provide for the education of all children; to do so with a stable and dependable revenue source (per the Supreme Court); and to provide for a general and uniform system of schools.

Helping some kids is not enough. The state is on the hook for all kids, and the ball is in your court.


Ramona Hattendorf
Washington State PTA
Government Relations Coordinator

ABOUT WASHINGTON STATE PTA: We are the largest child advocacy association in the state with about 140,000 members in over 900 local PTAs across the state. Nationwide, PTA has over 5 million members. We provide training in running non-profits and help members speak with a powerful voice.  Read about our priorities here.

TVW blog: Senate, House leaders try to bridge gap as budget numbers get reworked

Update on special session/Senate majority press conference. Click here.
  • “It’s about living within our means”
  • “We can’t buy our way out of this; we need to reform our way out.”
Update on special session/Governor press conference. Click here.
Gov. Inslee has three priorities:  
  • An operating budget that will make a significant and healthy down payment on our obligation to finance our schools and fulfill our paramount duty to our kids’ education. 
  • Transportation budget; “21st century transportation system” that keeps jobs and economy growing.
  • Impaired driving: "Aggressive, strong measure."
Gov. Inslee on ending certain tax preferences: "Some of these loopholes were created for conditions that don’t even exist anymore. ... Some are not as important as early childhood education. ... Education is not free.”

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