When a group of 18 high school students failed to pass the math exam in the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the Edmonds School District “focused like a laser beam” on a solution. After the students spent a semester receiving one-on-one focused attention with an experienced teacher, 95 percent of them either met or exceeded the WASL standard for math.

“It’s not hypothetical,” Edmonds Superintendent Nick Brossoit said Wednesday in the trial over education funding. He asked and answered a critical question in his next breath: “Can we or can we not close the achievement gap? It’s possible.”

On Day 17 of the trial, Brossoit resumed the testimony he began last week, reiterating his belief that all students can learn if schools are given the resources now lacking. When the superintendent completed his testimony, the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools rested its case. The State will make its case during most of the remaining eight scheduled days of the trial before closing arguments.

Brossoit, who riveted the courtroom last week with anecdotes about neglected, low-income and non-native-English-speaking children and families, repeated his twist on the saying that “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” The saying is used by those who assume some children can’t or won’t learn, but Brossoit said the horse can’t drink when its “jaw is wired shut.” He described the “wire” as poverty and lack of English proficiency and said, “We fail to understand that some children have problems different than other children.” Schools lack the resources to replicate on a wide scale the gains that some dedicated educators have made, Brossoit said. “There’s a way (to help children achieve). The State has the responsibility to do it – and we haven’t been meeting the responsibility.”

“Right now, our students are at risk,” Brossoit said. “We need to invest much more amply. Our system works for some students now; it doesn’t work for some (other) students.” If given more resources, he said he would not pay teachers more for their years of experience or their attainment of a master’s degree. Instead, he would use additional resources to generally reduce class sizes and to concentrate on targeted programs, such as the one that helped the high school students pass the WASL for math. Trying to rearrange teacher and class schedules to accomplish such targeted teaching can’t currently be done without robbing another part of the budget, he said, calling the situation “unbelievably frustrating.”

Answering a series of questions posed by NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne, Brossoit said there was no way his district could provide all its students with the knowledge and skills needed to meet state academic standards – or even a “realistic or effective opportunity” to do so – with the $208 million it received from State, federal and local sources in 2007-08, much less the $108 million provided through the State’s “basic education” funding formula.

In her cross-examination of Brossoit, Senior Assistant Attorney General Carrie Bashaw showed that expenditures per student in 2007-08 was $9,121 for Edmonds, $146 less than the statewide average. How then, she asked, did Edmonds 10th-grade students outperform the average Washington sophomore in the reading, math, writing and science WASLs? While “it’s great” that Edmonds beats the statewide average, he said, “it’s not great that we leave students behind.” Repeating another line from his previous testimony, he asked if it was OK to take 100 children on a field trip and bring back only 85.

Because the State fails to amply fund education, Brossoit said, his district had to make painful budget cuts for this school year. Reductions in bus transportation services were among the $11.6 million in cuts. Sitting in the courtroom last week waiting to testify, his district called to tell him that a sixth-grade boy was hit by a car while walking. Bus transportation service would have been available to the boy if Edmonds didn’t have to shrink its budget, he said. Bashaw then attempted to pit school funding against funding for medic and other services, a line of questioning that halted when Judge John Erlick told Bashaw that “how this money (for education) is raised is not within this court’s prerogative… I’m not going to tell the Legislature how they get this funded.”

Bashaw told Brossoit that the State funds 49 certificated employees per 1,000 students, or one per 20.4 students. In Edmonds, the figure was one certificated employee for every 17 or 18 students, she said. Brossoit questioned whether that was the actual average class size in Edmonds and said local levy dollars also help to pay for teachers. Later, responding to questions from Judge Erlick, Brossoit said that Washington’s formula for funding certificated employees “doesn’t match reality.” Because certificated employees also include principals, librarians and others who aren’t in the classroom, student-teacher ratios are misleading, he said.

Ben Rarick, a senior fiscal analyst for the Washington State House of Representatives, began his testimony at the end of the day and said he provides nonpartisan technical assistance to the Legislature on K-12 matters. Rarick served the Basic Education Finance Task Force, a group created by the 2007 Legislature to study whether the State is meeting its constitutional duty to fully fund education. A graph he prepared for the task force showed growth in per-pupil State funding for K-12 over nearly three decades, adjusted for inflation. The amounts were $6,237 in 1980 and $8,962 in 2008.

Coming up on Thursday: Ben Rarick, a senior fiscal analyst for the Washington State House of Representatives, is expected to resume his testimony.

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