Is the Washington state legislature meeting its top constitutional priority of funding education without placing the burden on taxpayers?
Well, the answer from Sunnyside School District Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole and other administrators across the state is no. Education groups from across the state are planning to challenge the legislature to meet its legal requirement of properly funding education.
During a recent Sunnyside School Board meeting, Cole outlined for local directors the Ample School Funding Project.
He explained the Ample School Funding Project is an effort by numerous education associations, mainly headed by the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA), to have the state legislature meet its constitutional requirements of funding education, which is something the group says hasn't been done. Cole said the group also wants the state to look at making sure adequate resources are in place to keep funding for education at needed levels.
"For the first time in a long time the education associations have joined together," said Cole.
This won't be the first time the issue has come before the state legislature, said Cole. The 2004 legislature was asked to consider a similar study. A total of 26 state senators sponsored Senate Bill 6449, which would have provided $500,000 to address the study. The bill was never given a hearing by the senate. House Bill 2955, a K-12 finance study bill, passed the House, but the Senate would not hear the issue.
Cole said it is the contention of the different education associations involved that the state is inadequately funding basic education as required under the state constitution.
"Which is a violation of the constitution," said Cole. "Our constitution says the education of (students) is the highest requirement of the legislature."
Cole backed up his comments by citing sections of the state constitution that outline the legislature's duty to fund education.
Article IX, Section 1 of the state constitution states, "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provisions for the education of all students." Cole also cited Article IX, Section 2 of the state constitution which states, "The Legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of schools."
Besides looking at funding for basic education, the education associations would like the state to examine its funding formula for transportation and special education.
The state legislature's funding for education has been challenged three times in court, with cases in 1978, 1983 and 1988, said Cole. The results of those three cases, said the superintendent, established various principles of school funding. The main outcome of the court cases helped establish that funding of education takes precedence over all other state financial obligations. The court cases also mandated the legislature must define basic education and provide ample funding for the programs.
Cole, however, said the legislature and the education system differ vastly on what is to be funded under the definition of basic education.
Cole also pointed out that the state is placing the burden of adequately funding education on taxpayers.
In the 2002-03 school year, Washington schools had to utilize $987 million in levy revenues to fund areas such as basic education, special education and transportation.
"The courts have ruled you can't use levies to fund basic education," said Cole.
Another issue exists in the fact that the state legislature enacted education reform in the early 1990s, increasing student and school district expectations. Cole said students in the 10th grade will have to pass the WASL to graduate, but the legislature hasn't provided any additional basic education funding to meet those requirements.
He said during the 2002-03 school year, the state had a budget shortfall of $180.2 million in funding special education across the state.
Administrators have great reason to worry about legislative funding, said Cole. He explained that currently more than half of the students tested in grades four, seven and 10 are not meeting the requirements of the WASL tests.
There is also a lack of funding for districts to enact House Bill 2195, which the legislature passed in 2004, requiring schools to develop learning plans for ninth graders this school year. In 2005-06, school districts will have to develop learning plans for students in the fifth and eighth grades. Cole said this will take a lot of individual time with students.
He also noted Washington state ranks behind the national average for teacher salaries and classroom size.
Washington ranked 18th in the country for teacher salaries in the 2002-03 school year. The average teacher's salary in Washington state was $44,963, compared to the national average of $45,930. Washington ranks a dismal 46th in class size. Washington has an average of 19.2 students per class, compared to the national average of 15.7. Washington ranks 23rd in the country for the amount the legislature expends on students. The state legislature allocated $7,516 per year for students, compared to the national level of $7,829.
The legislature also does not adequately fund classified staff positions, said Cole. The difference between the state formula for paying classified staff and the actual expenses districts across the state incurred in 2002-03 was $123 million.
In the area of transportation, Cole said the state has not been meeting its requirements. Cole said transportation costs can be a dent in the budget of a school district. Under the 1977 basic education act, the state was required to fund transportation by 100 percent by 1980-81. Following a court challenge, the 1983 legislature committed the state to meeting the requirements of the act. But funding has been anything but adequate for transportation, said Cole. In the 2002-03 school year, the state only met 59 percent of the transportation funding requirements on a state level. Cole said the funding for transportation across the state is not uniform.
Cole said the education associations want to work with the legislature on the problem. If the state is not willing to meet its obligation, lawsuits will be filed to ensure the state enacts its constitutional requirements with education, he said.
"The paramount duty of the state of Washington is to fully fund K-12 education," said Cole. "It is (the) first duty."