Catching up with the state of education

The Mercer Island School District is awaiting the March revenue forecast from the state to get a better idea of just how big its budget cuts next year are going to be. What the district and school leaders statewide know for sure: expect less state money.

School districts have become accustomed to getting less every year. It has become a fact of life; districts are taking on more of the basic education costs while the state hands down new changes without sending a check to support them. MISD is attempting to plan for anywhere between a $1 to $3 million loss in state money next year.

After crying foul for almost as long as funding has slipped, the education community got a bone tossed its way in 2007. The state Legislature’s Joint Task Force on Education Finance was created to review the definition of basic education and basic education funding formulas. Two years later, those recommendations led to bills which sought to overhaul the system. While the outcome of those bills rests with lawmakers in Olympia, the desire for change is hitting home.

State Senator Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island, who is a member of the early learning and K-12 education committee and sat on the joint task force charged with looking at education funding, said that new bills (Senate Bill 6048 and House Bill 2261) would allow for billions more per year.

“We think this could mean $3 to $4 billion more in funding,” said Jarrett, adding that this represents a 40 to 50 percent increase in education funding.

The bills would hold Washington students to higher standards. Jarrett said the state’s current graduation requirements fail to give students a fighting chance to get into higher education.

“One of the ugly truths is if a student meets all of the state requirements to graduate, they wouldn’t be eligible to attend a four-year university or community college without remedial classes,” said Jarrett. This was a major reason for redefining the state definition of basic education.

But the bills do not create a clear outline of where the money will come from, which is why some education associations have been slow to show their support.

Mary Lindquist, the president of the Washington Education Association and former union leader on Mercer Island, said the bill does not show a source of money, leaving it up to future legislatures to decide when schools need money.

“We continue to have a basic fundamental problem with the bill,” she said of HB 2261. “It continues to ignore the problem in front of us.” The WEA would like to see the state figure out a way to eliminate or lessen the proposed $1 billion education cuts facing the state, before dealing with other issues.

“The more time they spend on it, the more it takes their eyes off the real problem,” said Lindquist.

Both bills acknowledge the current economic difficulties and outline changes in funding that would not be set in place for several years, likely until the economy picks up.

“We’re trying to work with all the stakeholders and the business community and walk through all the issues raised,” said Jarrett. Additional funding would be possible by developing a new allocation system based on research from the joint task force, as well as a committee created in HB 2261.

The bills base requirements for graduation on the Core 24 program, adopted by the State Board of Education last July. The implementation of the program is contingent on funding from the state. It requires 24 credits to graduate. Currently, 19 credits are needed.

While the bills may have earned affirmation from most groups, Jarrett said there are still areas of contention, including class sizes and Core 24. Lindquist counters by saying while in the long run the program will probably be a good thing, it continues to place the burden on districts by sending another requirement without money to fund it.

“It’s very prescriptive,” said Lindquist. “It assumes all students need the same type of courses, but a student wanting to go to Stanford will take different classes than someone looking at going to a trade school.”

Jarrett said one of the difficulties is that the legislature and groups such as WEA are looking at things from different angles. While the legislature looks farther into the future, figuring out where education should be and then how to get there, other groups focus on what is wrong with the present and what needs to happen right now to fix it. The problem is that both groups are generally talking about the same things, just in different ways, Jarrett said.

The most recent projections put the state budget shortfall at $8.5 billion. Jarrett explained that between Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget cuts and other rainy day money, the state shortfall could be reduced to around $4 billion if the state really crunches things. But Jarrett said even $4 billion less to work with is a serious hit. That’s the same as wiping out all prisons and higher education in the state, he said.

“I don’t think it’s internalized yet,” he said. “We’ve got tough choices to make.”

A tiny portion of this will be offset thanks to the federal stimulus package from Congress. Jarrett said that it will send approximately $820 million to Washington earmarked for K-12 education, which will be added to the state’s general education fund to help offset budget cuts. Jarrett stressed that this money is going to be treated like the rest of the funds in the education funding pool, going toward the general education fund.

The Mercer Island School District receives 61.7 percent of its budget from the state, with 4.1 percent from the federal government. Twenty-two percent comes from local levies.

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