Will School Funding Reform Include Resources for Low Income Youth?

Summary: School Funding Reforms in Washington State and California properly should include additional funding for at risk low income youth, in order to support them toward the skill level of more fortunate fellow students. That is, if we are truly serious about improving test scores.

Let’s see if we can come up with some good news in education, Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump aside. There may be some good news even there, as the Every Student Succeeds Act has pushed balance of authority back toward the states, which to some degree will neutralize the Michigan lobbyist’s influence. I’m assuming she will be confirmed, but stay tuned.capitol-1244359_1280

Longer term good news may be crystallizing on the at-risk, low income student scene. Flashpoints currently are in Washington State, which is under State Supreme Court order to revise its school funding mechanisms, and California, which is working its way under the redoubtable Governor Jerry Brown (is he still around?!) toward a school funding system that radically increases funding to support low income and other special needs students.

While it is clear to anyone who has worked extensively with low income at risk kids that enhanced resources are a prerequisite to sustained progress, propitious news emanating from establishment power centers, such as the California legislature, signal decision makers also are getting it, finally. In the state of Washington, which is not as far along as California, nonetheless the vice president of a pro-business think tank, the Washington Roundtable, which has been deeply attentive to the problems of education in Washington State, has been quoted as saying “right now, we treat all students the same. But that sort of misses the fact that all kids do not start on a level playing field.” The state is still a long way from Tipperary, but acknowledgement from such a business bulwark may foreshadow more fully constructive negotiations as the school funding drama plays out.

Incredibly, the school funding mechanism in Washington State actually provides more money to districts that are in general wealthier, and less to those districts that have heightened needs because of students in poverty. The key ingredient lies with what is call the “staff mix.” (I am indebted to Claudia Rowe and the EducationLab staff at the Seattle Times on this one.) That is, funding is distributed by the state based on the experience level of staff in individual districts. Because more experienced and therefore more expensive teachers tend to migrate to districts less heavily impacted by poverty (working with kids of poverty is a heavier duty gig, relatively speaking), those often suburban schools are funded at a higher rate in order to pay higher salaries. More disproportionately, mechanisms for funding English as second language learning, tutoring beyond classroom instruction, and monies for students with disabilities all are determined as a percentage of the basic allotment provided for teacher salaries. Because that basic allotment is lower for higher poverty districts, the more heavily impacted by poverty the district, the less funding it receives from the state for its special needs.

It gets worse. Districts are allowed to raise their own local funds based on a percentage of the basic teacher allotment. You guessed it – high poverty districts can levy less funding than more affluent districts, because they have a lower basic allotment, which reflects a less experienced teaching staff. Grind your teeth, baby!

In one calculation carried out by activist Mary Fertakis, a Tukwila school board member, the calculated discrepancy between special needs district funding levels in Everett (higher) and Tukwila (lower) was $45,000, which if balanced out would go a long way toward payment for another teacher and lower class size.

A caution here, it seems to me. Though critics are right to decry the funding mechanism in Washington State, frankly the $45,000 Fertakis calculates is a drop in the bucket of what is needed. The funding mechanisms need to be adjusted for such obvious inequities but with an 80% poverty rate among students, Tukwila could readily make use of multiple multiples of the Fertakis calculus. It would not be hyperbole, for example, to suggest that each of the five Tukwila schools could use two to three additional adults playing a variety of roles – counselor, teacher, instructional aide, family support — and that may be too conservative.

The Washington State Supreme Court in its landmark (McCleary) school funding decision focused on a particular passage in the state constitution:  “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders…” Does “ample provision” include compensatory funding for low income kids? (The court has left it to the legislature to decide the meaning.)

According to Washington State Representative Eric Pettigrew, “…we’ve taken the same approach for a long time, and I haven’t seen much progress for the kids that struggle, the ones that drop out….” (He’s right about that.) “In California…equity … is driving the change there, and that’s huge.”

What about California? Equity in the California context recognizes that kids that come from compromised backgrounds will need substantial extra investment in order to catch up to the levels of more fortunate brethren.

California has shifted to a model that funds different students at different levels, similar to other states around the country, which in recent practice has meant that some California school districts receive as much as 53% more money toward high needs kids. Sounds good, but already fears are growing that the new money is being misappropriated toward teachers’ salaries, rather than toward programming designed to impact low income and other special needs kids. Also, the legislature and Governor Brown have managed to fund their enlightenment with a new income tax on high earners, certainly a tough sell in Washington State.

Meanwhile, the story unfolds at a more simple level in Olympia. Can the legislature, and maybe more specifically Republican legislators, find agreement on revenue streams that will add as much as 1.76 billion dollars per year to the state budget? Doing so would shift full payment of teachers’ salaries onto the state, and dismantle a local levy system that has paid perhaps a quarter of teachers’ salaries in the past, in order to satisfy the state Supreme Court order.

The concern is that such a primal legislative fight will obscure the question of how the state will address the yawning gaps in low income youth readiness for school. “Ample,” I say, means whatever it takes to bring low income youth up to standard.

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