The Constitution of Washington State says the education of children is the state's paramount duty and that it must provide ample funding to do so.
Three times, courts have decided the state is not doing that. The most recent lawsuit over school funding will be heard in state Supreme Court next week. As that lawsuit has made its way through the courts, the recession has given schools more poor students to serve and less money to do it with.
KUOW's Phyllis Fletcher has the final installment of our series on public education and the recession.
You may have heard it in a famous movie about sales: Coffee is for closers. ["Glengarry Glen Ross," 1992.]
Bob Bridge was the closer, over coffee, at a fundraising breakfast this spring. He told the story of calling all his buddies, asking them to give thousands of dollars for programs in Renton schools.
Bridge: "Alex Smith, Smith's Kaye, called him on the phone, You on for 10 again, Alex? He says, No, I'm on for five. You gotta beg me for the other five. I said, Alex, I'm on both knees. He says, You got it. Renton reporter Ellen, she's here ..."
The car dealer worked the room. He acknowledged donors and the Renton Superintendent Mary Alice Heuschel, and he wrapped it up.
Bridge: "So money you give today, Mary Alice gets to keep a program for 2nd grade reading, as opposed to terminate it. The reading program touches a ... "
He compared a reading program to a breath of wind that propels the student in the right direction.
So, Superintendent Mary Alice Heuschel, how did he do?
Heuschel: "We had a financial goal of $300,000, and it looks like we will hit the $200,000 mark, at least for the initial count."
So they fell short of their goal. But $200,000 in a recession, that's better than nothing. The money pays for summer school classes and after–school programs, things that used to be covered by the state or school levies.
It's more and more common these days for a private foundation to support a school district. Issaquah, Mercer Island and Seattle all have them. The problem is $200,000 isn't much compared to what the Renton superintendent has had to cut.
Heuschel: "It does make a difference, so I don't want to minimize those dollars. But it doesn't backfill any of the state responsibilities, federal responsibilities."
In five years, Mary Alice has cut $18 million out of a $135 million budget.
Education funding is complicated. The simple version is that most of the money comes from the state, and since the recession, that amount has gotten smaller. This year, the Legislature cut the budget in the middle of the school year. Money that districts assumed they would get was suddenly gone.
Support from a private foundation dedicated to the district helps a little, but most districts don't have that.
Tukwila is a suburban district that's changed a lot over time. Check out the wall in the lunchroom of Foster High School with pictures of homecoming queens since 1948. Foster's first black homecoming queen was in 1990, and then —
Mary Fertakis: "The homecoming queen from two years ago was from Bosnia and the girl before her was multiracial. And the girl before her and a gentleman, both African–American. The homecoming ... "
Mary Fertakis has been on the Tukwila School Board for 16 years.
The district became majority–minority in the '90s, and in the last decade Tukwila has become a huge resettlement area for immigrants and refugees.
Mary Fertakis says Tukwila has cheap housing and proximity to service jobs. That has changed the face of Tukwila schools. And in the recession, people with service jobs and little English often find themselves with no jobs.
Fertakis: "Our free– and reduced–lunch rate in the school district right now is over 70 percent."
That's the percentage of kids in Tukwila schools who live in poverty.
Fertakis: "The higher that percentage goes up, the higher the number of kids you have living in poverty, the more exponential the impact becomes as those cuts are being felt."
The more kids you have in poverty, the more money you're eligible for. Over decades those dollars have gone up, but since the recession, the state has changed how that money is allocated and cut it. Tukwila lost over $2 million this year.
Patty Murray: "Are we gonna punish these students and give them less of an education? Because of the economic time they happen to be in 1st grade, or 5th grade, or 8th grade?"
US Senator from Washington state, Patty Murray — she spoke on the Senate floor last year and asked the government to give $10 billion to school districts.
Murray: "This is about making sure that our kids aren't hurt in this tough economic recession, and it's at a time when our states are struggling with their budgets."
The Senate passed it. People call it EduJobs.
Fertakis: "Our EduJobs money that we were supposed to get was $570,000."
Technically, the state Legislature gave it to them. But —
Fertakis: "Our apportionment amount from the state was cut by that amount."
So that's like not getting the money.
Fertakis: "It was a wash. We did not see an increase from that."
The feds gave it to them and the state took it back to fix other budget problems.
Last month, the state Legislature also cut the amount of money it provides for teachers salaries by 1.9 percent. Teachers are employed by school districts, so it's up to the districts to figure out what to do. Are they actually going to cut salaries? Do their contracts even let them do that right now? Every district is in a different situation.
Just about every public service in the state has seen more need; more people in poverty to serve and less money. So why is education any different?
The Constitution of Washington State.
Fertakis: "It's very clear in the constitution what the paramount duty is, and it's funding K–12."
The Seattle School District sued the state over that clause of the constitution in 1975 and again in 1983. The school district won both times. The court said the state was not providing ample funding for K–12 education.
In 2006, a group of school districts sued over the paramount duty clause again. A judge ruled against the state again last year. The state has appealed that ruling through the Office of the Attorney General, Rob McKenna.
He's also running for governor.
McKenna: "When I was a student here at Sammamish High School, public education accounted for 51 percent of the state budget. Now, it's just over 40 percent."
McKenna announced his candidacy this month at his alma mater. He said he wants schools to get that 10 percent back.
McKenna: "It would mean they would have over $3 billion more for all–day kindergarten, and smaller K–3 classes, and year–round school for kids who are at risk and really need that. That's what it would mean."
At the same time, McKenna says he wants a leaner state budget overall, and he wants to tie increases in education funding to reforms like tying teacher pay and retention to tests that measure student performance.
His office is scheduled to appeal the paramount duty ruling on behalf of the state in arguments before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.
I'm Phyllis Fletcher, KUOW News.
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