Over the last decade, Washington state has made improvements to our education system and increased education funding. But undercutting these efforts has been a funding system that was not only unconstitutionally low, but was structurally inequitable.
Our state’s elected leaders have now adopted a bipartisan education funding package that lays a foundation for meeting the individual needs of every student--by fixing structural inequities and targeting more investments in the students who need it most. The proposal is a hard-fought compromise and strikes a balance to put students first.
At the heart of undoing inequities is a significant change in how we fund education — the ending of the “staff mix factor.” This accounting practice sent money to school districts based on the experience level of a district’s teachers. Since affluent districts are more likely to have more experienced teachers, the policy resulted in wealthy districts getting more funding than their poorer neighbors. Washington was one of only seven states to use this practice, in part, because of how it reinforces existing economic disparities.
The package also invests $528 million more over four years in the state’s Learning Assistance Program—a funding stream which districts must use to help students who are below grade level get back on track. Schools with very high-poverty rates will get an additional boost in funding. Significant underfunding of this program has meant many struggling students aren’t getting the support they deserve. While more funding will still be needed in the future, it’s a meaningful step forward.
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If used wisely, this new funding will help close achievement gaps. Since 2003, our achievement gaps between low-income students and their classmates have increased, making us 50th in the country in our progress on closing them. Gaps along racial lines are just as persistent, tragic, and inexcusable.
The package should also help improve the state’s track record with high school students. Washington currently ranks 41st in the country in high school graduation rates and only 31 percent of high school graduates in our state earn a degree or advanced credential within six years, despite 73 percent of careers requiring one.
The potential to improve those numbers are why the proposal’s changes to Career and Technical Education are exciting. The state will now require Career and Technical Education funding to be spent on vocational programming, rather than going into the district’s general budget, along with increasing this funding by $200 million over the next 4 years.
As we applaud these policy reforms and levels of investment in the kids that need it most, this proposed budget also shows that the state still must invest more in the entire educational continuum. Washington ranks 41st in the country in the number of 3 and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool. We have 24,000 college hopefuls that are eligible for the state-need grant but don’t receive it because of a lack of state funding. That’s unacceptable.
There is still much to do in K-12 education as well. Support for bilingual students, students living in poverty, and others is still underfunded. Additional policy changes could better ensure dollars make a difference at the local level.
The McCleary court decision highlighted how the old education system was broken. We now have a proposed new approach for funding education in Washington that builds on proven programs, eliminates old barriers to equitable student success and creates new opportunities for all our state’s kids. It’s time to get to work. Our students can’t afford to wait.
Libuse Binder is the executive director of Stand for Children Washington, a bipartisan non-profit organization.Tony Lee is the Equity in Education Coalition Board President and Co-Founder and a Senior Fellow for Solid Ground.