State of the local schools: Funding is key

Sara Thompson Editors note: Because four out of five households in our area dont have children in public schools, we launched a series covering the KP schools. The first article provided a brief snapshot of the three elementary, one middle and one high school that serve local students. In this second part, we explain the basics of school funding, its history and current status. The online version includes links to the resources used in writing this article. The third article will review the topic of testing, and the final article will cover the local school board. Public education funding is a complex and ever-changing issue. Although the state constitution mandates funding for K-12 public schools, legislative budget pressures create constant challenges. On top of that, new legislation and initiatives add to the mix. Larry Seaquist, former state representative with a lifetime interest in education, said that education faces a dual challenge: Students need to know more than ever if they are to succeed, but there is also an increasing number of students who lack critical resources at home. “School funding needs to increase both to add the necessary curriculum our children need to succeed and to compensate for those at-risk, economically disadvantaged students,” he said. The Peninsula School District isn’t alone in all this, said Chuck Cuzzetto, PSD superintendent. “Until the state meets their paramount duty and fully funds education, the Peninsula School District, like other districts, will need to continue to rely on local taxpayers to meet the basic education needs of all of our students,” he said. The history of school funding The Washington State Constitution states: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste or sex.” From the state general fund, just over 45 percent is dedicated to pay for K-12 education. This places Washington among the highest in the nation for the percent of school district revenue provided from state sources, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Most of the rest of school funding comes from local levies and federal sources. According to the Washington state Education Association, Washington ranks 40th in per-pupil funding for K-12 students. The state’s average class sizes are among the largest in the nation and the student/teacher ratio is 45th out of 50 states, WEA says. The history of school funding for the last 50 years is one of slowly decreasing spending and one of increasing dependence on local funding. Prior to the 1970s, funding was stable, with monies coming primarily though sales, business and occupation taxes and state property taxes. These remain the primary sources today. In the 1970s, with a recession and decreasing state revenue, local levies were used to close the funding gap. Class sizes increased, there were teacher strikes, and a voter revolt led to levy failures. Court decisions aimed at more stable state funding, and a levy lid of 10 percent to pay for basic education was instituted to equalize funding across the state (though districts that exceeded the lids were grandfathered in). By 1980, Washington ranked 11th in funding education in the nation. Another recession hit in 1981, and in 1987, the levy lid was raised to 20 percent. Over the most recent two decades, the levy lid has been raised several times and a number of initiatives have been passed to decrease classroom size and improve teacher salaries. In 2007, the Washington Adequacy Funding Study found that state public school spending as a percent of total state spending had declined significantly from 1987 to 2005, from a rate of 27.1 percent to 23.1 percent. In 2014, that had dropped to 22.2 percent. In real dollars adjusted for inflation, both the amount spent per student and the average teacher salary have declined. In the so-called McCleary Decision in 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court found that the state was not meeting its constitutional duty and that current levels of funding to the schools were not adequate to meet the basic educational services students need. The Joint Task Force on Education Funding, established by the Legislature, estimated that it will take $1.4 billion in the next two-year budget cycle and $4.5 billion by 2017-‘19 to meet those obligations. Basic education is defined as providing the following programs/services: general classroom education, special education for children with disabilities, the “Learning Assistance Program,” transitional bilingual, highly capable programs, institutional education programs, full-day kindergarten for high-poverty schools and transportation. Sources of current funding Funding from school district to school district varies. Peninsula School District sources are similar to those of the state overall, with somewhat less coming from the federal government.
Source of funding State Peninsula
State taxes 66.4% 67.53%
Local property taxes (Levy) 19.5% 23.85%
Federal funding 8.1% 4.35%
Local nontax (grants, fees) 3.35%
Other 4.2% 0.92%
State funding for education comes from the general fund, the largest fund in the state budget and principal state fund supporting the operation of state government. All major state tax revenues are deposited into this fund. For the 2013-‘15 biennium, it was $33 billion. The total state budget for the same timeframe was nearly $82 billion. Local funding is overwhelmingly from levies — increases in property taxes — and varies across the state now from 20 percent to 37 percent of local budgets. Local districts can make levy requests up to twice a year. There are four types of levies:
  • General fund, also known as maintenance and operations levies; they are one- to four-year levies, used for day-to-day operations;
  • Debt service: multi-year levies used to pay principal and interest on general obligation bonds sold to finance school construction and remodeling;
  • Transportation vehicle: one- or two-year levies that pay for buses or other transportation equipment;
  • Capital project: one- to six-year levies that pay for construction or remodeling.
Federal funding is primarily used to fund programs that help children with disabilities (Individuals with Disabilities Act) and those living in poverty (Title I). Individual districts determine how the money is used to meet those needs. Federal funding requires compliance with federal program requirements. Money allocation About 80 percent of the budget goes to salaries and benefits of school employees (administrators, teachers and support staff).
Area of expenditure State Peninsula
Teaching (classroom and extracurricular) 58.7% 57.24%
teaching support; e.g., library, counseling, health) 10.9% 12.59%
Other support (e.g., utilities, IT, maintenance, food) 14.5% 14.7%
School administration 6% 6.11%
Central administration 5.9% 4.95%
Transportation 4% 4.41%
Looking to the future The Washington State Supreme Court weighed in on school funding in 2012 with McCleary v. State. The court ruled that, because state funding did not fully pay for the full cost of basic education and relied on unreliable levy monies for up to a third of those costs, the current funding formula is unconstitutional. The education reform bill passed in 2009 purported to offer a process to adequately fund education by 2018. In 2014, the court reviewed progress to date in addressing the problem and declared it inadequate. The Legislature was found in contempt and was ordered to achieve adequate funding in the 2015-17 biennial budget. At the time of publication, after a second special session, that budget had not yet been finalized.