Make the most of McCleary funding

Demonstrators in Olympia advocate for more state spending on education in September 2014.
Demonstrators in Olympia advocate for more state spending on education in September 2014. The Associated Press file, 2014

A safe prediction: In the next session of the state Legislature, there will be drama over financing schools. But eventually, driven by the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, Washington lawmakers will surely put a lot more money — likely between $2 billion and $4 billion — into K-12 education for the state’s 1.05 million students.

Regardless of how one feels about various ideas to pay for the court mandate, which range from levy swaps to eliminating tax breaks, it is hard to oppose more money for education. Washington’s spending is close to the national median, but our educational needs and aspirations are not average at all. We lag in preparing students for college and work in our high-tech economy, and in bringing poor and minority students up to speed.

As our recent research at the University of Washington shows, Seattle public schools have one of the nation’s largest equity gaps. A white student in Seattle is nearly 10 times as likely as a black student to attend an elementary or middle school that performs in the top 20 percent citywide on reading.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Washington state schools can be excellent and equitable.

That said, full funding alone will not solve these challenges. Without changing the ways money is allocated and used in schools, equity gaps are likely to stay the same and students are unlikely to receive dramatically better instruction. The court hasn’t (and shouldn’t) set spending priorities, so the Legislature and school districts have decisions to make.

How we use the money is important: If the new money isn’t used in ways that make a real difference for kids, it could be another generation before a similar opportunity comes around.

With few exceptions, students haven’t benefited much in states where courts have forced them to spend a lot more money. In New Jersey and New York, for example, it’s hard to see what billions in new spending have done to raise graduation rates or close achievement gaps. Too often, higher spending levels lead to a more expensive, but not a higher-performing, school system.

States have missed opportunities to ensure new money improves learning outcomes by:

▪ Funding the same new staff positions for every school.

Though there may be some schools that need new administrators, counselors or nurses, many need something else (a new science or math or bilingual teacher, or a new tutoring program) that’s still not funded. A cookie-cutter approach to staffing can leave some schools worse off than they were before.

▪ Mandating reduced class sizes (and therefore hiring of more teachers).

Again, that’s just right for some schools and wrong for a lot of others. Ironically, it makes things worse for schools serving the neediest kids by increasing the pool of marginally qualified and green teachers who inevitably end up in the most challenging classrooms. It also creates space constraints (and the need for portable classrooms) in overcrowded schools.

▪ Funding a general increase in the teacher salary schedule instead of finding a way to attract great teachers in shortage areas like math and science.

The way the teacher salary scale works, the lion’s share of new money goes to senior teachers. To attract teachers in shortage areas, salary increases need to be greatest for new teachers, as Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed, and targeted on math and science specialists.

This doesn’t mean money can’t matter. Of course it can. But it has to be spent thoughtfully and strategically. Legislators face a dilemma — require all districts and schools to use funds the same way, or leave the details to be worked out in local politics and labor negotiations.

There is a way to beat the funding dilemma: Attach the new money to individual children so that it goes as cash all the way down to the school. Let the schools decide how to use the funds — whether to hire teachers, increase counseling, lengthen the school day, hire a nurse, etc. This would allow schools to try out ideas that might benefit kids throughout the state and then track what works.

For example, new school designs that use technology and online resources, like Khan Academy, to create personalized learning plans for all students, extra pay for science and math teachers to keep them in the classroom, and integrated PreK-3 programs in low-income neighborhoods. This is not a wild new idea: California did something like it last year, with its new Local Control Funding Formula.

Whether or not taxpayers support a big influx of new funding for our schools will depend on whether the new spending leads to innovation; progress in closing achievement gaps; and real gains in graduation rates, college readiness and a stronger workforce.

This all depends on letting educators decide how to use the extra money to meet their students’ needs, and then holding them accountable for results.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, is an affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington Bothell.