Although funding for K-12 education in Washington has long been inequitable, the Legislature has lacked the “political will” over the years to do something meaningful about it, former State Treasurer Dan Grimm said Monday as the trial over education funding entered its third week.
Grimm, who took the stand for all but 50 minutes on Day 8 of the trial, recently served as chairman of the Basic Education Finance Task Force, a group that studied whether the State is meeting its constitutional duty to fully fund education. He started by outlining the history of education funding since the landmark Washington Supreme Court decisions in the late 1970s. He explained how some school districts are able to levy larger amounts of taxes – and to pay their teachers higher salaries – than other districts, causing the lower-financed districts to lose educators.
Grimm said the State allowed districts to supplement their teachers’ salaries with what is known as TRI – time, responsibility and incentive – pay, which initially included a fourth factor: performance. Though TRI pay, which comes from local levies, is not supposed to pay for basic education, “it’s disingenuous (to say it does not) because it does,” Grimm said. “All that (TRI) money is just salary increases.”
The Basic Education Finance Task Force did not include any source of funding to pay for spending increases it recommended in its final report, which led in part to Grimm issuing a minority report.
NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne read a portion of Grimm’s report, in which the task force chair noted that the Legislature has “failed to fund significant increases in education spending even in the best of economic times. Waiting for an economic recovery will force students to suffer the consequences of a public school system that is inadequate to prepare them for success in the 21st century.”
Grimm elaborated on his report in court, saying that “to the extent that additional funding is necessary, it will take an act of political courage to make sure resources are available, either by cutting (health, social services, corrections or other State programs) or increasing taxes.” Those options, he added, were “difficult or impossible,” with lawmakers essentially taking the position that “this should be done but we’re not willing to do it.”
A significant factor in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher, Grimm said, and “poorer school districts don’t have the same opportunity to attract and retain (good teachers) as richer school districts do,” primarily because the better-financed districts offer higher TRI pay. Beyond pay, “teachers tend to migrate to less difficult teaching assignments,” he said, because higher-income districts tend to have fewer behavioral problems, greater parental involvement and a larger percentage of students who see the importance of learning.
Grimm, a former seven-time state representative from Puyallup, said the level of State funding for education is less than the average level for the nation. “For every $50,000 of adjusted family income, we spend less than many other states,” he said. He traced the low funding level to the 1970s, when the State created its funding formula by accepting what districts were levying at the time, without regard to whether those amounts were valid. Local levies were subsequently replaced by State money for basic education. Districts with higher levy levels than others were allowed to keep that greater taxing authority, resulting in the grandfather clause that has contributed to inequitable funding among districts ever since.
Overall in State education funding over the years, “not much has changed,” Grimm said. “Structurally, it’s the way it was.” Still, he said, governors and legislators like to take credit for supporting education, leading to “a proliferation of programs and titles that sound appealing but aren’t mandated… They ostensibly make a change but don’t.”
Ahearne asked Grimm how he viewed HB 2261, the new education reform law that seeks to broaden the definition of basic education and provide new financing formulas. Speaking in measured tones, Grimm said the law could make a significant improvement. But he qualified his answer, saying it would have to be implemented as enacted, given “significant real purchasing power” – meaning it not be shelved for years, making it more costly to carry through – and provide reforms of school funding.
Later, Ahearne asked what it means when the Legislature passes a bill, as is the case with HB 2261, that asks a future Legislature to carry out its intentions. It means the first Legislature “wants to get credit without doing the dirty work” of budget cuts or tax increases, Grimm replied.
During the cross-examination by Senior Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark, Grimm said he supported greater state funding only if the money was linked to reforms that enhanced student achievement. “In order to improve student performance… all funding would be needed to be managed more effectively,” lest Washington “end up with a more expensive system that doesn’t improve performance as much,” he said.
Rather than simply putting more money in the education system, “structural reforms are necessary,” Grimm said, including a comparison of teacher pay with the private sector, improved data collection and a changed model of compensation. Math and science teachers aside, he said, research shows that advanced degrees for teachers, which rewards them with higher pay, “does not seem to matter a whit” in terms of improving student performance.
Grimm also said it was “ludicrous” to assume that every student would achieve the State’s academic standards because of factors beyond the State’s control. “Not everyone is the same or has the same motivations, especially in this time of life,” he said. “Not all people develop at the same way or at the same time…We need to prove we provide the opportunity. We don’t force the horse to drink, even when we brought it to water.”
He said that the State should not adopt a school district’s expenditures as its responsibility because a district would continue to have levy authority. After several years of local levies, the district’s budget would have risen to a new level and the case could be made that the State was still not funding basic education, he said.
Answering questions posed by Judge John Erlick, Grimm said that the State’s funding of education was “probably sufficient, or close to it, for all students to achieve at the college admissions level. The question is how the money is spent.” He favors a measure of educational attainment that looks at how well students are prepared to enter college, but not using a school district’s criteria or even the colleges’ own admissions standards. Instead, Grimm advocates for new admission standards to be established by the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board and approved by the governor.
Ben Soria, recently retired superintendent of the Yakima School District, followed Grimm with testimony on conditions in his district, one of 13 that will be examined closely during the trial. Nearly 80 percent of the 14,400 students qualify for subsidized free or reduced-price lunch, though Soria believes the true number is closer to 95 percent. Nearly two-thirds of the district’s students are Latino. Many have parents who are not literate in English.
Soria described how lack of funding is affecting the district: Computer work stations that are “cobbled” together. Buildings that lack the electrical capability to accommodate those work stations. An elementary school playground the size of a “postage stamp.” The unanticipated need to reroute a natural gas line after a gas-filled tunnel was discovered under Eisenhower High School. The still-undiscovered source of a steam leak that caused mold at Davis High School, which has 11 portable classrooms. The “astronomical” costs of heating non-insulated high schools built 55 years ago.
Coming up on Tuesday: Former Yakima School District Superintendent Ben Soria will continue his testimony. Roger Soder, research professor of education in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Washington, also might testify.