In general, higher income states spend more per pupil on K-12 education. Washington State is an exception. We are 44th in the nation in educational spending per pupil as a percentage of personal income. Acknowledging this problem, the Washington State Supreme Court (in its 2012 McCleary decision) found that the state was failing to adequately fund public education, and ordered a dramatic increase in spending (billions of dollars per biennium). As the state legislature determines how to comply with the McCleary decision, it is critical to keep several principles in mind.
First, the additional funding will provide opportunities to reimagine and reconstruct the way public education is provided in Washington State. The legislature should take full advantage of this opportunity. The public education system should not just be funded at a higher level; it should be redesigned to perform at a higher level (specific recommendations follow).
Second, the additional funding to comply with McCleary should come from sources that reinforce, rather than undermine, educational objectives. More affluent communities tend to have stronger educational outcomes. This creates an achievement gap in our schools -- the more underprivileged ethnic groups do not do perform nearly as well as the more affluent ethnic groups. Unfortunately, Washington State has the most regressive tax system in the country (its poor citizens pay a much higher state and local tax rate than its affluent citizens). This exacerbates the educational achievement gap. In light of this, it is essential to raise the additional funding for education in a manner that simultaneously redresses this regressive tax structure. I propose a massive repeal of the state’s numerous corporate tax breaks to provide a major source of funding for McCleary. An income tax on high income earners is another possibility that I support (although this has, of course, proved politically difficult to implement in the past).
Third, the use of the additional educational funding is a critical issue. I advocate for a substantial increase in funding for early learning programs (kindergarten and prekindergarten). Because private early learning programs are often unaffordable to lower-income families, increasing the public funding of early learning programs is, to some extent, a civil rights issue. In short, investments in early learning will begin to address the educational achievement gap.
Fourth, it makes since to establish educational curricula that acknowledge the wide range of student aspirations. Upon graduation from high school, some students want to work or enroll in apprenticeship programs; others want to pursue a technical college or community college degree; others want to attend a four year university. High schools should establish multiple curricula (which will involve the reintroduction of trade education in many schools) to meet these diverse objectives.
Fifth, high school students (and especially those in underprivileged communities) should receive additional counseling support to help them in their quest to establish a post-graduation education/career plan. Working with students to help them develop a vision for their future can have highly beneficial impacts on their current level of educational achievement – it helps make their education immediate and relevant to their lives. There is considerable local evidence that this type of education/career counseling support can be extremely effective – from the Rainier Scholars program in South Seattle to the recent experience of the Everett Public School District.
Sixth, the public school system should increasingly be managed as an integrated system comprised of early learning, grades 1-12, and higher education; rather than treating each of these stages as its own discrete institutional entity. An integrated approach to educational system design and management should yield improvements in a number of areas. For example, curricula that incorporate both high school and higher education classes can be designed. Similarly, curricula that integrate high school trade education with apprenticeship programs and/or technical colleges can be established. High school students could conceivably begin to prepare for more advanced university courses (or even earn several college credits) before leaving high school, and/or participate in certain aspects of college work to earn high school credits. Early learning instruction can be aligned with elementary school learning objectives. It is easy to envision myriad ways in which online learning, mentoring, tutoring, community service, and career planning could be incorporated in into an integrated educational system in ways that are far more effective (and efficient) than they would be if they were implemented separately into each stage of the current system. An integrated approach to public education system design and management could have positive implications for dropout rates, the ability to support students in the creation of a career vision, creative instruction models and cost improvement. I believe that this is an area of vast potential.
In summary, Washington State is an anomaly: it is a high-income but low per-pupil spending state. The Supreme Court’s McCleary decision is forcing the state to address this problem by adding billions of dollars per biennium into the education system. It is imperative to take full advantage of this opportunity. There should be three conceptual objectives: fully fund the McCleary decision to bring Washington State’s funding levels up to those of other higher income states; do so in a way that simultaneously deals with the state’s regressive tax code; and make structural changes in the way the state’s public education system is designed and operated. In other words, this is not just a time to increase education spending; it is an historic opportunity to restructure the way in which our state’s public education system is financed, designed and managed.
- John Stafford