K-12 education is the “No. 1” priority for Washington, commanding the largest portion of the State’s general fund, Office of Financial Management Director Victor Moore testified Tuesday, opening the fifth week of the trial over education funding. But his testimony also showed that the State fails to cover certain critical costs that it does not define as “basic education.”
Moore, who testified for all but 15 minutes on Day 16 of the trial, said that learning improvement days – professional development for teachers – are not considered part of basic education. Neither are early learning or food service programs. Voter-supported initiatives 728 (class-size reduction) and 732 (cost-of-living increases for teachers), both fully funded in the 2007-09 biennium, had support reduced and eliminated, respectively, in the 2009-11 budget to help the State manage a budget shortfall.
Asked by Senior Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark if the State pays for all K-12 programs, Moore replied that State pays only for what the law defines as basic education, using a funding formula specified in law. Beyond that, he said, Washington law allows local school districts to raise and spend money on “discretionary” programs.
The State does not need to make any decision to place a priority on basic education, Moore said, because the Washington Constitution guarantees that “it’s in the budget. It’s No. 1” – above human services, health care and natural resources. Clark later asked how the State makes “ample provision” for the education of “all Washington students,” as constitutionally mandated. “We rely on basic education statutes and apply the statutes to the funding model, which gives top priority (to K-12),” Moore replied. And because the “funding formulas count all students in the model,” he added, “all students attending public schools are covered in the model.”
The State’s K-12 funding formula relies on a number of factors to determine costs for basic education, with the largest cost – teacher salaries – based on an educator’s experience, education and length of service. If school districts want to pay higher salaries, they can do so by passing local levies to supplement the State’s allocation, Moore said.
He said that 40.9 percent of the State’s general fund goes to K-12 education, a total of $13.2 billion. Basic education funding increased in the current biennium, though discretionary funding was cut, he said.
During his cross-examination by NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne, Moore said the State does not use market rates to determine teacher salaries. Although “progress” has been made, he acknowledged that the differences in salaries among districts posed an equity problem. A cause of that disparity is the grandfather clause that allows some districts to seek higher local levies than other districts, he said.
Much of Moore’s testimony was related to various State reports, documents, graphs and charts, most of them created by OFM, where he has been director since January 2005. One report compared Washington’s support for education with other states. “Washington spent more for K-12 in the ’90s than the average?” Ahearne asked. “Now it’s down below?” That’s what the document indicates, Moore replied. He told Ahearne that money for I-728 was cut and funds for I-732 was eliminated, though not for education-related reasons. Funding for both was considered discretionary and not mandatory, Moore said, noting that the Legislature routinely revises discretionary funding at the midpoint of the State’s biennial budget.
Answering questions by Ahearne, Moore said that the State pays 20 percent to 80 percent of the cost of school construction projects. The State bases its contribution to those costs on Washington law, using such standards as cost per square foot and square footage per pupil. As with teacher salaries, districts can pass local levies to pay beyond what the State supports for capital projects, he said.
Coming up on Wednesday: Nick Brossoit, superintendent of the Edmonds School District, will resume his testimony from September 24.