On Jan. 9, in its latest order related to the McCleary decision, our state Supreme Court required the Legislature to submit a plan on April 30 indicating how it will fully fund our schools by 2018. Many legislators responded that the court overstepped its bounds by issuing that order. This impasse between two governmental branches has the makings of a constitutional crisis. Given the lack of significant progress in the recently completed legislative session, it is likely that the court will become even more adamant in its subsequent orders.
The resolution of this conflict will likely require new revenue. With the power Washington’s citizens have through the referendum and initiative process, they could ultimately decide whether the state provides that revenue. Given that fact, it is critical that voters become informed about this issue.
Any review of how we got to this point would include the passage of House Bill 1209 in 1993. It was intended to improve both the funding and performance of our schools. Two decades after that bill passed, there has been a remarkable increase in student achievement. Washington is now among the top 10 states on the National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP), but the funding hasn’t followed.
The infographic at right uses data from Education Week’s Quality Counts report to illustrate that point. The comparison with Massachusetts is interesting, because they are similar in size, demographics, economic base and rigorous learning standards. Alabama is included to show how we compare to a state with lower initial funding and NAEP scores among the bottom 10 in the nation.
In 1995, Washington was slightly behind both the national average and Massachusetts, and a good bit ahead of Alabama. By 2011, Washington’s per student funding was significantly lower than all three comparisons. Washington has dropped to 41st in the nation in both per student funding and the Quality Counts measure of the state’s funding effort.
Clearly the Legislature is in a tough spot. Just getting to the national average in per student funding would require $2.5 billion more per year, and to meet the commitments made in the state’s McCleary defense would require more than $5 billion more per year. Increases of that scale cannot be accomplished without new taxes — an unpopular notion for many voters.
Yet, compared to other states, our current tax burden is relatively low. According to the Office of Financial Management, Washington is 35th in the nation in total state and local taxes paid for every $1,000 of personal income, based on 2011 figures. State revenue as a percent of personal income has dropped from a consistent 7 percent level prior to 1995 to less than 5 percent today. If we were still at 7 percent, $15 billion more in state revenue would be available, more than enough to address the McCleary decision.
The State Supreme Court says it’s time to get serious about the constitutional “paramount duty” of “ample” school funding. While it may appear that this issue will be resolved by the court and the Legislature, ultimately, the citizens will have their say. You need to decide what kind of state and what kind of education system you want.
And, more to the point, what are you willing to fund?
Bill Keim is the executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators. He has also served as superintendent of an educational service district and two school districts.