Politics & Government

What teachers and students get out of the state’s school overhaul

Sixth-grade students compete in a language arts quiz at Jefferson Middle School in west Olympia on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. The Washington State Legislature just passed a comprehensive plan to fix how the state pays for schools.
Sixth-grade students compete in a language arts quiz at Jefferson Middle School in west Olympia on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. The Washington State Legislature just passed a comprehensive plan to fix how the state pays for schools. toverman@theolympian.com

Much of the discussion about Washington’s new K-12 school reform has focused on how it might affect taxpayers.

But the state’s plan to pour about $7.3 billion of new state money into public schools over the next four years will also bring big changes for teachers and students.

Among the changes planned: More money for special education, career and technical education and highly capable programs, and tutoring in high-poverty schools.

And, for teachers, a new minimum salary of $40,000 (up from $35,700), plus a mandatory 10 percent salary increase after five years on the job.

“This represents a huge change in how teachers are paid — probably the biggest change in 30 years,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the statewide teachers union, about the plan Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law earlier this month.

“There’s still more work to do, but certainly it is progress, no doubt about it.”

Overall, the state is significantly increasing what it pays to hire teachers and other school employees as part of its effort to comply with a court order to fix how it pays for schools.

In the McCleary case, the state Supreme Court said Washington needs to stop relying on local school district property tax levies to pay teachers, school administrators and classified staff.

For years, school districts have used their local levies to make up the difference between what the state pays and what it actually costs to hire teachers and other employees.

To help move the full cost of salaries to the state budget, the Legislature recently approved a new system that will allocate an average of at least $64,000 per teacher. Previously, the state allocated an average of about $54,000 per teacher.

The state also will give school districts a new average allocation of at least $95,000 per administrator and nearly $46,000 for classified staff — up from an average of $61,752 for administrators and $33,300 for classified staff under the old system.

Those minimum allocations will be increased for school districts in areas with high property values. Districts with home values that exceed the statewide average will get an extra 6 percent, 12 percent or 18 percent, depending on the cost of local real estate.

“The regional factor is really important, recognizing the fact that the cost of living is higher in some parts of the state than others,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, who helped negotiate the school policy changes.

Sullivan said the new allocation model should help school employees “actually live in the districts where they teach,” though it largely remains up to school districts how they choose to spend that money on salaries.

Besides mandating the minimum salaries for new teachers and those five years into their careers, the only other major restriction on salary negotiations is that districts can’t pay more than $90,000 for a basic education salary. That amount can be adjusted depending on what region a district is in or increased to help hire staff that specialize in math, science, engineering, bilingual instruction or special education.

Districts also can award additional contracts on top of the base amount, as long as the extra pay is for duties outside of the state’s program of basic education, such as coaching sports or teaching summer classes.

The new state salary allocations are scheduled to be fully phased in by the 2019-20 school year. Starting in the 2020-21 school year, the allocations must increase annually with inflation.

At the same time, the state is getting rid of the part of its formula that awarded districts extra money based on the experience and education level of their staff. That factor, known as “staff mix,” has been criticized for perpetuating a system in which richer districts received more money to hire more experienced and educated teachers.

Dave Powell, government affairs director for the advocacy group Stand for Children, said moving away from staff mix should help ensure state dollars are distributed more equitably between school districts.

“The issue with the staff mix factor was it essentially reinforced existing economic inequities — it tends to be wealthier districts that would have more experienced, higher paid teachers, and then they would get greater allocations from the state,” Powell said.

He said the system allocating salaries based on regions appears to be an improvement, but his group is still looking at whether there could be unintended consequences.

“In theory, this should bring more equity to how much districts receive that is more in line with the student need in those districts,” Powell said.

Some of the other major reforms involve limiting how local school districts can spend their levy dollars. The new law caps local school district levies at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value or $2,500 per student, whichever is lower. And that money only can be used for enrichment programs, not basic education expenditures.

To enforce that rule, the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction must approve school districts’ local levy plans before they can go to voters for approval. School districts also must start accounting separately for their local levy money versus the money they get from the state, while tracking how each pool of money is spent.

The state auditor’s office is supposed to conduct regular audits to check that local levy money isn’t being spent improperly.

Daniel Zavala, director of policy and government relations for the League of Education Voters, said those are good reforms, but he still has questions about how the rules will be enforced.

He said ensuring local levy money is spent only on extras, and not basic education costs, is crucial to avoiding another McCleary-like lawsuit in the future.

“There’s stuff that is promising, but it all hinges on the compliance and implementation,” Zavala said. “There’s a lot of, ‘We need to do this’ — but what’s the enforcement mechanism if there’s no compliance?”

Some of those details are expected to be sorted out over the next two years, before many of the changes take effect in 2019 and beyond.

While many of the new reforms surround staff salaries, Sen. John Braun, the top Senate budget writer, said he also thinks the Legislature did a good job of directing more money to students who need it the most.

Nearly $200 million over the next four years is designed to help lower class sizes in career and technical education courses, reducing the standard class size from 27 students to 23. The typical class size at the state’s skills centers also will be reduced to 20 students.

About $500 million over four years will help pay for academic tutoring, with a portion of that money being directed for the first time specifically toward high-poverty schools.

“We spent some time thinking about how do we get this (funding) number right, and how do we drive it to the right places?” said Braun, R-Centralia.

The state also will spend about $63 million over the next four years to roughly double what it pays for highly capable students, while increasing money for special education by about $50 million during the same period. About $66 million over the next four years will increase teaching hours in the state’s Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program.

Zavala said he wished the state would have done more to direct money to specific students that are struggling or who have special needs. At the same time, what lawmakers did on that front was already beyond what was required by McCleary, which focused mainly on the staff salary issues, he said.

“This is a step toward structural equity, but it is by no means the final step in that process,” he said.

Other changes for teachers include more money for early-career mentoring. The state also will pay for three professional learning days each year. Starting in 2020, the state plans to take over school employee health plans, which will be negotiated at the state level instead of between local unions and school district officials.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1