The ongoing debate over education finance in Washington often focuses on abstract numbers, percentages and dollar figures, overshadowing the harsh consequences of inadequate funding. “It’s easy to talk about numbers. It’s easy to talk about statistics. But every life lost is very real,” State Rep. Skip Priest testified Tuesday as the trial over education funding entered its second week. “We’re talking about real kids.”
When the State fails to fully pay for education, “the cost is seen in additional dollars (needed) for DSHS and prisons,” said Rep. Priest, a Federal Way Republican and the ranking minority member on the House Education and Education Appropriations committees. The saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is, in fact, true,” he said, calling the State’s funding of schools “a paramount example of a failure to do that ounce of prevention.”
Day 5 in the suit filed by the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools began with a continuation of testimony from Judith Billings, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1989 to 1996. Asked by NEWS attorney Edmund Robb if the State has ever provided all students with the knowledge and skills specified in Washington’s education reform law – or even the opportunity to do so – Billings said no. But she answered yes when subsequently asked if all students could meet state standards if all schools had “fully sufficient resources.”
Billings, who gave an outline of Washington’s education reform efforts since the early 1990s, said inadequate funding was a major problem from the start. For instance, when HB 1209 passed in 1993, the bill recommended 10 days of teacher training to prepare for the transition from a seat-based to a performance-based education system. “Only four days were funded,” she said. “That was cut back to two days when money got tight.”
Bill Clark, a senior assistant attorney general for Washington, asked Billings why she did not request more money for education in her role as state superintendent. Billings replied that her office could recommend but not appropriate dollars. “What we requested was what we thought was politically feasible,” she said. “Actually, if I requested the full amount (necessary), I probably would have been laughed out of the Legislature.”
Clark asked Billings if the education reform law “guaranteed” that every child would master the new State standards or at least have the opportunity to do so. Billings answered that the expectation was for every child to achieve the standards. “Is it unlikely that all Washington students would ever attain a 100 percent successful academic outcome?” Clark asked Billings. She replied: “Without resources, they will not. With resources, it’s highly possible.”
Clark also referred to various studies in the 1990s that he said indicated that Washington “compared favorably” with common trends and with other states in education funding. Those comparisons are beside the point, Billings responded, because what matters is whether the State fulfills its constitutional mandate to fully fund education, “and it does not do that.”
When Judge John Erlick asked Billings if any studies had been done to determine what it would cost to fully implement Washington’s education reform, she cited a 2003-2004 study done by the nonprofit Rainier Institute, a public policy organization for which she served as education committee chair. Other Institute members included former Gov. Booth Gardner. The study indicated a price tag of $3.1 billion per year above what the State paid, she said.
“How do we distinguish between providing an opportunity and guaranteeing results?” Judge Erlick asked, wondering if the parallel was leading a horse to water but not being able to make it drink. “What are the goals? Are the goals to create the water or to get the horse to drink?” Billings answered that it was a combination. “If you have the right kind of resources, children will learn,” she said. “To me, it’s more than simply the opportunity. That’s not what it’s all about.”
Later in the day, Rep. Priest began his testimony, drawing on his experience in Washington Learns – a committee created by Gov. Christine Gregoire to review the State’s entire education system – and on other state and legislative education committees. He said the State’s basic education funding formula created an “illogical distribution” that resulted in school districts in similar circumstances paying disparate amounts for the same jobs. For instance, the State provides $1,700 more for a teacher in Everett than for a comparable teacher in Federal Way, he said. But since Federal Way – and other districts in the same situation – have to pay market rate to attract and keep teachers, they rely on local levies to help make up the difference.
Priest said that 35 of the state’s 295 school districts have greater allocation rates, in some cases because their comparatively higher rates were grandfathered in when the State created its funding formula. He said the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction indicated that underfunded districts pay a combined $1.3 billion a year in levies for help pay for certificated and classified staff, transportation and such non-employee related costs as technology, insurance, curriculum and textbooks.
Coming up on Wednesday: State Rep. Skip Priest will resume his testimony.