With his spiked hair, dark clothing and heavy metal persona, the teenage boy seemed frightening to some of his classmates. But not to teacher Nick Brossoit, who playfully teased the boy along with his other history students. When the police arrested the boy one day at Peninsula High School in Gig Harbor, Brossoit was stunned to learn that his student had been living under a bridge after a failed placement with his third foster family.

The boy had broken into homes and cars for food and, unknown to his teacher, had dropped out of all his other classes six weeks earlier. He came just to Brossoit’s third-period class because, the boy said, it was “the only place I feel safe.”

On another occasion, Brossoit accompanied a probation officer to a home that had a dirt ramp leading to a front door off its hinges. The three truant children inside did not know where their mother was. The only food was a nearly empty five-pound bag of sugar.

“We make an assumption of who a student is and who a parent is,” said Brossoit, now the Edmonds School District superintendent, on Thursday in the trial over education funding. “You can’t assume. There’s not a Ward and June Cleaver behind every student,” he said with his voice rising, “and the general public and the State doesn’t get this.”

On Day 15 of the trial, the State offered an out-of-state researcher who filled an overhead screen with graphs and contended that school funding does not affect student achievement. The Network for Excellence in Washington Schools made its case with Brossoit, a career educator who coupled statistics about tight budgets with riveting anecdotes about real-life struggles.

Brossoit has worked in four school districts, including 10 years as superintendent of the Tumwater School District and the past six as school chief in Edmonds, which serves 20,000 students who speak 85 languages. The parents of some students speak no English and aren’t even literate in their native languages. About 30 percent of the enrollment qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, though Brossoit suspects the true number is higher.

The language barrier and grinding poverty are the two most “profound” challenges to student achievement, Brossoit said. With costs rising faster than unstable funding, Edmonds faced an $11.6 million budget cut this school year and reduced bus transportation, froze textbook purchases, limited technology support and reduced administrative pay. Deciding what area to slice was akin to someone deciding “which finger (to) cut off to keep the rest of the body alive,” he said.

In 2007-08, Edmonds received $138 million in State basic education funding, temporary class-size reduction money and federal funds. The district’s actual costs were at least $208 million, not including capital projects, and the district used its full local levy authority to help make up the difference. Edmonds is one of 13 districts that are being examined during the trial.

Asked by NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne why schools had counselors, Brossoit told of a distraught girl whom he sent to a high school counselor. On average, each counselor has 350 or more students to serve. The girl had just broken up with her boyfriend and was “trying to decide if she should kill herself or not,” Brossoit said. “She was a 4.0 student.”

Brossoit told the court about his own family struggles as a child growing up in Ephrata, and how playing football provided his sole motivation to stay in school. “We have kids who wouldn’t come to school if not for co-curricular activities,” he said. “I’m one.”

The superintendent said he was not satisfied that close to 90 percent of 10th-grade students in Edmonds passed the reading and writing WASL, much less that 50 percent or less passed the science and math portions of the exam.

Brossoit was clearly annoyed by those who use an old saying – “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” – to explain why they believe that some children can’t or won’t learn. “No one realizes the horse has its jaw wired shut,” he said. “No one realizes (that all children) don’t have the same opportunity to learn… If you invest properly (up front), you wouldn’t need to invest in the things we’re spending money on later,” he said, referring to the criminal justice system.

Asked by Ahearne if he could accept the current high school graduation rate, Brossoit responded with a rhetorical question: “If you take 100 kids on a field trip and bring back 80, is that acceptable?”

“It’s not OK for 15 percent or 5 percent to not graduate. What frustrates me is that they could be successful if we had support,” he said. “It’s unconscionable to me that we seem to want to justify the 85 percent (graduation rate and ignore struggling students)… Where do we hold the State responsible in this situation? These are not bad kids. They are good kids in tough life situations.”

Brossoit said Core 24, the State Board of Education’s proposal to increase the number of credits needed to graduate to 24, was well intended but yet another barrier to students already struggling to meet the current 19-credit requirement. And he said HB 2261, the new law that seeks to redefine basic education and change the school funding formula in Washington, had “an alligator mouth and a butterfly body – it talks big but doesn’t follow up. There’s no revenue source… There’s no accountability for the State to have to fund that.”

Brossoit’s remaining testimony was delayed until next week to accommodate the schedule of the State’s expert witness, David Armor, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia. “We know that the achievement gap is not caused by students but by birth,” Armor said, summarizing his national research that ties achievement level to socio-economic factors in a student’s life. Closing that gap, he said, has been “an elusive goal.”

Armor said he analyzed 2004-08 WASL scores for the 13 districts to be examined in the trial, along with the Seattle and Tacoma districts. He displayed his analysis on charts and graphs in an exhibit that was provided to NEWS attorneys after court-imposed deadlines for discovery of documents. As he did the day before regarding an exhibit by another State expert witness, NEWS attorney Chris Emch raised an objection. Judge John Erlick allowed Armor to testify and said he would reserve judgment on whether the exhibits for both State witnesses would be admitted.

Armor said that his research in Washington, similar to his work nationally, found that schools with a high percentage of students who did not speak English as a native language, or who qualified for the free and reduced-price lunch program, had low test scores. When those variables were removed, he said, his research showed that school funding had a “very small” correlation to student achievement.

Under questioning by St. Louis lawyer John Munich, who was hired by the State, Armor also said that pupil-teacher ratio, teacher experience, teacher salary and a teacher’s attainment of a master’s degree all generally had negligible effect on student achievement, once he removed the socio-economic variables in the districts he examined in Washington.

Under cross-examination by Emch, Armor said he was not rendering an opinion of whether Washington students were getting an adequate education. He also said that more money in general would not raise achievement, but that he had not considered the effects of money spent in particular programs, such as curriculum, textbooks, technology, the arts, athletics and counseling. Armor also said that in examining Washington school districts, he did not evaluate the issues of technology, textbooks, transportation, vocational education or dropouts, among others.

Coming up on Tuesday (no trial on Monday): Victor Moore, director of Washington’s Office of Financial Management, is expected to testify.

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