Over the weekend, The Tacoma News Tribune reported on the budget proposals of Senate Republicans and House Democrats to respond to McCleary this session. The article reveals the difficulty of accurately reporting on school spending and revenue in Washington state. School finance reporting depends upon a multitude of technical terms, for revenue (state, local levy, federal) and for spending (staff-mix ratios, prototypical schools, multiple categorical spending programs, and many more). Spending increases can easily be confused with revenue increases, and making political points by playing games with these numbers occurs with depressing regularity.
The good news is none of this jargon matters to the people of Washington state. The only thing that matters is, “Are students getting the resources they need to receive a quality education?”
The answer, by any reasonable measure, is a definite “Yes.” Over the last four years, the people of Washington have generously provided enough money to permanently expand the program of K-12 schools by 35 percent, increasing from $13.5 billion in 2011-13 to $18.2 billion in 2015-17. In other words, total dollars per student have jumped from around $9,000 to almost $12,000, more than the tuition at most private schools.
Senate Republicans say they want to increase spending on K-12 schools again, raising it to nearly $22 billion. This would mean an increase in state spending of nearly $4 billion over the last budget, partly by meeting the McCleary requirement of ending over-reliance on local levies by replacing them with new state spending. If the Republican plan passes, it means the state will have increased K-12 spending by $8.4 billion, or 62 percent. In all, Republicans want to increase per-student spending to $13,300 by 2020.
As an important side benefit, the Republican approach would reduce conflict and political gamesmanship in education. The Senate Republican budget would create a per-student funding model to replace the current overly-complex system of school finance, which is so easily manipulated by unions and other special interests. If a per-student funding model is adopted this session, parents, educators, and the broader public would know how much money each student is getting. New clarity and transparency would help parents and the public ensure that local administrators deliver value to the classroom so that every child receives the support he or she deserves.
While Democrats in the House and the media dance their two-step, slicing and dicing school funding numbers to make political points, the people of Washington state understand what is important. What matters to people is, “Does the Senate Republican plan provide enough revenue to educate every child?” It clearly does, especially if enacted with practical reforms that expand parent choice and improve the quality of instruction.