In a day of testimony that focused on the processes of school finance, one point seemed evident: A new Washington law that seeks a new definition and funding method for K-12 is long on assumptions and short on certainty. Developing cost proposals for public education under HB 2261 is “a challenging exercise,” senior K-12 fiscal analyst Ben Rarick testified Thursday as the trial on education funding ended its fifth week.
HB 2261, passed by the 2009 Legislature, provides no education funding. Though it “contemplates recommendations,” the intent of the law is not binding on future legislatures, said Rarick, who works in the nonpartisan Office of Program Research for the Washington State House of Representatives. “(HB) 2261 says, here will be the new way of funding (that) will be delivered to school districts,” he told Judge John Erlick on Day 18 of the trial. “It doesn’t say, here’s the level of funding that will be delivered.”
Asked by Network for Excellence in Washington Schools attorney Chris Emch if the State pays less than actual school district expenditures for teacher, administrator and classified staff salaries, as well as for non-employee related costs, Rarick answered yes. Responding to another series of questions by Emch, Rarick agreed that an investment in education could result in an economic stimulus and greater earnings, and reduced crime, health care costs and reliance on public assistance.
Emch asked if HB 2261 would require Washington to provide full-day kindergarten or support for Core 24, a proposal by the State Board of Education to increase the number of high school credits needed to graduate from 19 to 24. The new law “sets up the implementation of a funding formula to fund those things,” Rarick replied. “There’s no guarantee that a future Legislature will do anything.”
Rarick, a witness for the State, said he developed various cost proposals for HB 2261 for the Basic Education Finance Task Force, which was created by the 2007 Legislature to study whether the State is meeting its constitutional duty to amply fund education for all children. He also estimated costs at the request of the State, using assumptions provided by the State in his calculations. He emphasized that his estimates were not definitive and could easily change by variables in a number of areas.
Much of Rarick’s testimony during direct examination by Senior Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark dealt with processes, not dollar figures. Later, when asked by Emch if the cost estimates he developed for implementing HB 2261 pointed toward “significant increases” in State funding, Rarick said that was a “reasonable” conclusion.
Julie Salvi, senior budget assistant in the Office of Financial Management, followed Rarick on the stand and continued her testimony from Tuesday. She ran through a hypothetical school funding exercise, explaining the State’s allocation process as specified in Washington law. She explained that some school districts have been able to pay higher salaries because they were already paying at a higher level and were “grandfathered in” when the State moved to a standard allocation process.
Under HB 2261, the State will attempt to make a fundamental change in school finance by funding “prototypical schools,” which would be categorized by their specific, actual class sizes, Salvi said. “Funding will be more understandable in terms of what a person would expect to see in a school,” she said, though details still need to be worked out.
The trial will be in recess until October 8.