Answers to Popular Education Emails

I’ve been swamped with email on education issues and want to consolidate my responses to a number of popular questions as I think it’ll give a better sense of what my positions are on your issues. I’m hearing about:

  • Basic Education funding, including ensuring that we adequately fund our McCleary obligation.
  • Funding and implementation of Initiative 1351
  • The “waiver”, or making use of state-wide assessments for evaluations of teachers.
  • Senate cuts to teacher retiree benefits. In particular, a 27% cut to the Medicare subsidy, a flat dollar amount that’s part of the retirement benefit for teachers.
  • Testing and our graduation requirements. There are a number of proposals to change (reduce) the amount of testing we do. I address this in a different post.

Basic Education Funding

Interesting graph from The League of Education Voters

In 2009 the Legislature passed HB 2261 that redefined the formulas that make up the definition of “basic education.” A year later we passed legislation (HB 2776) that laid out a schedule of funding requirements that phase into the requirements laid out in 2261. The phase-in period ends in 2018. In the McCleary decision, the Supreme Court agrees with our definition and says that we have to actually meet the funding obligation we set for ourselves.

This budget meets that obligation.

  • Initiative 732 COLAs are funded. In addition, we provide enough to raise teacher salaries by the same amount we raise state employee salaries, 3% in the first year and 1.8% in the second.
  • Maintenance, Supplies and Operating Costs (MSOC) is completely funded in the first year, starting in September 2015.
  • All-day Kindergarten is funded in all schools by the end of the biennium.
  • K-3 class sizes are reduced to the mandated 17 in year three of the four-year period, with equal annual steps each year to get there. (It turns out that hiring a lot of teachers all at once isn’t the best idea; we space it out over three years.)
  • The package of counselors and parent and family engagement coordinators recommended by the Joint Task Force on Education Funding (JTFEF) is phased in smoothly over three years.

Doing this results in the addition of $1.4 billion in new investments this biennium. This means funding that’s the result of decisions we make this year. In addition, there is $1.8 billion of new funding resulting from decisions made last biennium, for a total of $3.2 billion in additional K-12 funding. This is a 21% increase. Once this phase in is complete Washington’s per-pupil school funding will be at about the level the national average was during the 2012-13 school year.

The Supreme Court has also rightly excoriated the Legislature for forcing school districts to depend on local property tax levies to fund salaries. By not providing enough funds to meet the needs of local labor markets the Legislature has unconstitutionally shifted the costs to unreliable local levies.

This chart is from the Washington Association of School Administrators. The problem they point out is that requiring additional teachers or other staff requires districts to increase their compensation payments from local taxpayer funds just to pay the salaries.

This is a significant problem, but one that we believe can be solved separately from the budget with a revenue-neutral adjustment to how property taxes are collected. I expect to release a proposal in the next week or so addressing this problem. It is unbelievably complex, but our lawyers in the Attorney general’s office believe that the court will act if we do not.

Initiative 1351

I-1351 was passed by the voters this fall and calls on the Legislature to increase funding by about $6 billion a biennium. It phases in, so it only costs $6 billion for the first four years, then $6 billion for each biennium after that. The initiative reduces class sizes to 17 in K-3 and 25 in all other grades. In addition, it increases the amount of other staffing for schools significantly. 2/3 of the funding is for staff other than teachers reducing class size.

My position during the campaign season was that I had no idea how to fund it, so I didn’t support it. I am still in the same place, as the basics of our economic situation have not changed. A $6 billion increase in funding would require a three point increase in the sales tax or some other huge tax change, something I do not believe we have the votes to implement. The Republicans who control the Senate don’t have the votes to reduce other spending by $6 billion either, so we are all likely to propose changes.

This budget assumes we will pass a bill (HB 2222) that changes the requirements laid out in 1351 to focus on the improvements already defined in the McCleary decision, and funded above. So that the Legislature does not recreate the salary problem described above by shifting costs to local districts, HB 2222 adds the requirement to fund cost of living increases as defined in Initiative 732 and a reasonable healthcare cost model to the definition of “basic education,” making them required for future legislatures. This bill requires a 2/3 vote to pass and will be incredibly controversial.

The Waiver

Washington didn’t get a waiver to the federal ESEA (also known as “No Child Left Behind Act”) because we do not require the use of state-wide student assessments in teacher evaluations. I support using these results as long as it is done responsibly, and I will support a bill if it makes sense.

The devil is in the details here. I used to believe that we could build a teacher evaluation system based solely on student learning results. This is typically called a “growth model” or something to that effect. You compare the results from the group of students a particular teacher has with the results from similarly situated students that have had other teachers. You have to correct for student family income and a host of other factors when doing these comparisons. I no longer believe that this would work as a useful tool in doing regular evaluations for teachers for all kinds of reasons.

  • It’s very hard to have large enough groups of students to get statistically reliable results for enough teachers to have a consistent tool.
  • We don’t test every subject with the amount of rigor and reliability that would be necessary to create a statistically reliable tool for everyday use, and we’re not going to.
  • We’ve changed tests enough in the past couple of years that there isn’t a good baseline to compare to.

Given this you might wonder why I support the bill. The above is true if you’re going to try to construct an evaluation system that works consistently for all the 50,000 plus teachers in the state. It just doesn’t work. What you CAN do though, is use student learning results (with all the comparability concerns I raise above) to help teachers improve their practice with data that may not be perfect enough to use to determine salaries, but it’s good enough to learn something from.

If one teacher at an elementary school consistently has much weaker mathematics results from her students than others at the same school it would be a super-interesting question for the principal and the teacher to explore in an evaluation. Allowing the use of the data to be bargained away makes this discussion impossible, and I don’t support that.

I’m also concerned about the perverse results we’ve seen from losing the waiver. The federal law itself is fundamentally stupid, assuming that every child would live in Lake Woebegone (be above average, for those who don’t follow A Prairie Home Companion on NPR) by 2014, and everyone would reach standard. This absurd suggestion didn’t happen, and hasn’t happened in any statistically interesting population in the history of the world. Predictably, schools with high poverty populations hit the trigger first.

Bellevue and Lake Washington school districts each lost control of several hundred thousand dollars, an amount that can be handled in their budget. Yakima is in a different place. It lost $4-5 million a year, as almost all of its kids are in poverty. This is exactly the kind of school district that can’t afford this loss of funds.

Retiree Health Benefit Cuts in the Senate Budget

Part of the retirement benefit for teachers on “Plan 1” includes a small ($150/month) cash benefit to help them pay for a Medicare Supplement Plan. All of these teachers started before 1977, and many are on very small fixed incomes. The Senate budget cuts 27% of this, or $40.

This is just cruel and I don’t support it. That’s why it’s not in the House budget.



Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.