The State wrapped up its case Thursday by portraying Washington as a place where school facilities are in good shape, teachers are well compensated and students are given the opportunity to achieve at high levels. Attorneys for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools gave a different picture, reiterating that the State has consistently failed to fully fund K-12 education, whether it be the cost of teachers, textbooks or bus transportation.
Two of the State’s three witnesses on Day 23 in the trial over education funding were from outside Washington. But it was the third, Julie Salvi, senior budget assistant in the Office of Financial Management, who provided the main testimony as the trial ended its seventh week.
Under cross-examination from NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne, Salvi acknowledged shortfalls by the State in school funding, including those that result when the intent of one Legislature is not carried through by a future one. Ahearne cast doubt on whether the Legislature would fully fund HB 2261, the new law that the State believes will eventually address and correct Washington’s funding problems.
Ahearne said a study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, a group considered to be the Legislature’s auditor, identified a $100-plus million annual shortfall in State funding in 2004-05 for K-12 bus transportation. The figure has only grown larger since then, he said, even though the Basic Education Act passed in 1977 compelled the State to fully fund bus transportation by 1980-81. “Every year the State delays implementing (recommended funding), they save about $100 million?” Ahearne asked. That is the difference, said Salvi, who was continuing her testimony from October 1.
Asked by Ahearne what the State has done in recent years to attract and retain competent teachers, Salvi said educator salaries were generally inflated by cost-of-living increases and additional steps on the pay scale. Answering follow-up questions, Salvi said she was not aware of any State analysis that examined the market rate for salaries.
Using school district survey data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ahearne questioned Salvi about State funding of a district’s non-employee related costs, dubbed NERCs, which include utilities, insurance, security, supplies and other categories. She acknowledged the survey results, which indicated that the State paid NERCs at the rate of $511 per student while the actual cost was $1,082.
Salvi confirmed her statement in her deposition that “substantially more State funding” is required, based on a report by consultants Lawrence Picus and Allan Odden for Washington Learns, a committee created by Gov. Christine Gregoire several years ago to review the state’s entire education system. But because the actions of one Legislature are not binding on a future one, funding approved often gets reduced over time, including money for class-size reduction and dropout prevention, Ahearne showed through his cross-examination.
Answering a series of questions about HB 2261, Salvi said that a number of elements did not contain timelines, such as when kindergarten would be converted from half days to full days. She also said that work groups are to devise a new school funding formula by 2011, an enhanced salary allocation model by 2012, and a new transportation funding formula by at least 2013. The recommendations would need to be approved by the Legislature.
Questioned by Senior Assistant Attorney General Carrie Bashaw, Salvi said that while OSPI can make a request, it is the Legislature that ultimately bears responsibility for establishing funding levels to fully pay for basic education. Asked about the Legislature’s commitment to supporting education, Salvi said that even when the State faces a “dramatic reduction” in the budget, “K-12 (funding) is held largely constant, especially in the basic education area.”
Judge John Erlick asked Salvi if the State has given any consideration to a cost-of-living pay adjustment for teachers in different areas of Washington, using the differences between Seattle and Moses Lake as an example. No such adjustment is given, Salvi said. Asked by Bashaw if a work group associated with HB 2261 might recommend to the Legislature that teacher compensation reflect regional cost differences, Salvi said yes.
The State’s first expert witness Thursday was Rick Melmer, dean of education for the University of South Dakota and that state’s former secretary of education. Melmer, questioned by John Munich, a St. Louis attorney hired by the State, testified about his visits to the Royal, Sunnyside, Moses Lake and Yakima school districts, four of the 13 representative districts under examination in the trial. Melmer visited 25 schools and 172 classrooms and found “generally strong academic resources available to students (and) very solid teaching.” His only quibble was that textbooks were outdated at Sunnyside High School.
Melmer also reviewed test scores for the four districts he visited and discovered an “unusual discrepancy,” with math scores on the WASL only one-half to one-third that of the districts’ reading scores. “I think that’s an alignment issue (between) what’s being taught in the classroom and what’s being tested,” he said. Washington’s fourth- and eighth-graders rank high in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, billed as “the nation’s report card,” he said. The combination of low WASL scores and high NAEP scores “tells me the WASL standards are pretty high,” said Melmer, who will be paid up to $50,000 from the State for his services.
Melmer said HB 2261 is “very consistent to where I think the country is moving” with its provisions for all-day kindergarten, standardization of class hours and days and other elements.
Under cross-examination by NEWS attorney Chris Emch, Melmer said Washington’s WASL scores were acceptable, that he had not studied the State’s math curriculum, that he was unaware that only 3 percent of Washington students take the NAEP, compared with at least 50 percent of students in South Dakota, and that he had not investigated the source of funding for Washington schools. When Emch noted that Washington’s class sizes were larger than all but three states, Melmer said that performing well under those conditions made for “a better endorsement” of the State’s schools.
Judge Erlick asked Melmer how schools were funded in South Dakota. Half by the state and half by local levies, he replied.
The State’s final expert witness was Michael Wolkoff, deputy chairman of the economics department at the University of Rochester in New York. His specialties include regional differences in labor markets for teachers. Examining four years of personnel records for teachers in Washington, Wolkoff said that the State’s educators are of top quality by federal No Child Left Behind measurements. “Washington is doing a very, very good job” with its teaching force, he said.
Using a series of charts he created, Wolkoff presented characteristics of Washington’s teachers over the four-year period. He said they averaged 13 years of experience, with 90 percent staying in the same district and 80 percent in the same school. Asked by Munich if their pay was adequate, Wolkoff said that “the teacher labor market is predominantly a gravity model,” meaning that teachers compare their compensation to non-educators in the same area rather than with educators in a distant state.
Comparing teachers with a group of other professions – accountants, nurses, librarians, computer programmers and so on – Wolkoff said educators generally fall in the middle or top third, depending on the region of Washington. Among states in the West, Washington ranks higher than Utah and Idaho and trails Nevada, Oregon and California, according to American Federation of Teachers data, he said.
Under cross-examination by NEWS attorney Edmund Robb, Wolkoff said he did not know Washington’s learning standards or local labor markets, nor had he determined whether the State’s salary structure was “attracting the right people into the system.”
Coming up: There is no trial on Friday or Monday. On Tuesday, attorneys for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools and for the State will offer depositions and exhibits. Closing arguments are scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 21, when the trial will come to a close.