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Court Strikes Down Adult-focused Education Funding System

Orginally Published January 26, 2012

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On Jan. 5, the Washington State Supreme Court decided McCleary et al. v. State of Washington in a seven-member majority opinion that has the potential to set the state on a new path for education funding.

Most reports claim that the court simply held current funding inadequate and demanded more spending. A closer look shows the ruling is neither so simple nor so simple-minded.

Specifically, the Court held that since our instructional system has moved from an input-based to an outcome-based model, the funding system needs to similarly focus on funding outcomes.

Throughout the ruling, the Court acknowledged that state policy has “transitioned from a seat-based education system to a performance-based education system.” The Court cited studies and legislative intent to point out that the state must now make our funding system match instructional reforms.

In 1992, the state enacted reforms that turned the focus to student learning rather than seat time. These reforms recognized that the work of educators and programs should focus on student learning rather than merely the time students spend in school buildings. The Court in McCleary noted that the state has preserved an archaic funding system which predates these instructional reforms.

The Court required the state to adopt a funding system focused on student learning.

The Court faulted the Legislature for failing to take the steps required to address “the question of how to use resources most effectively in order to improve student outcomes.” Indeed, the outdated status quo is defended against all significant reforms by adult interests—employee groups, bureaucracies, special interests and the lawmakers who seek to win their favor. 

The McCleary decision calls on the Legislature to overcome resistance to reforms and cites a number of promising directions articulated in the state’s own Joint Task Force on Basic Education Finance (BEFTF).

These funding reforms, like the instructional reforms, must put the interests of students ahead of the interests of adults. Several examples are suggested by the ruling. 

Student achievement connected to expenditures 

The state has never fully funded a system of student learning growth measures that enables evaluation of programs, reforms, practices or educators. The student achievement “pass-fail” snapshot provided by the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (by whatever name) was never the right tool to evaluate ongoing student growth or program effectiveness.

The McCleary ruling highlights that the ideal envisioned for a new system would provide “one of the best data systems in the country for studying the relationship between financial inputs and student achievement.” 

Service-focused salary system 

The state’s decades-old funding system rewards employees for longevity—seat time—and credentials like master’s degrees. The study the Court cited shows that these factors are nearly irrelevant for student learning and should be replaced with a performance review process.

The current funding system pays two teachers doing identical work wages which differ by as much as 88 percent. The salary schedule, as noted in the court-cited study, could be flattened to make the base wage fairer, and to make room in compensation for service-focused enhancements like effectiveness and additional specified duties.

Paying employees more based on factors not connected to student learning does not contribute to the requirements of the state’s constitutional responsibility to students.

The old funding system also ignores the simple truth of supply and demand in favor of established adult interests. A teaching position for high school math, a bilingual instruction or special education is very difficult to fill.

On the other end, elementary positions regularly have scores of qualified applicants. Despite these market realities, the outdated system treats all positions equally in funding.

The BEFTF noted this disconnect and recommended, “special incentives to attract teachers in shortage areas such as math, science, bilingual education, and special education.”

To comply with the ruling, the new system should accept market realities, connecting wages to the supply of particular education professionals and the needs of particular students. 

The Court does imagine more generous wages, but does not suggest this is unconnected to work expectations. The ruling suggests, for example, that schooling in the 21st century may require more time than assumed by the old system. To meet the high school expectations cited in the study and the ruling, more hours will be expected of students—and of adult employees.

Likewise, the system of teacher mentoring and evaluation is expected to add to the wage and workload of some teachers. The current funding system treats all educators’ workloads as the same, but the BEFTF recommendations note that greater responsibilities should allow for greater wages.

Likewise, the study notes that it is unfair to pretend that students falling behind or those who have the added task of learning English can be served in the same number of hours as students without these needs.

The state funding system does not offer a mechanism for requiring a longer work day or extended work year for the adults who have these responsibilities. Under the new funding system, some adults will put in more time serving students and receive an enhanced wage.

The BEFTF report also connects the wages of adults to student learning even more directly. The study recommends, “An incentive program should be developed to award bonuses to all school staff for significant improvements in student academic achievement.” 

The adult defenders of the old funding system did not permit this recommendation to become part of current law, in spite of the state’s duty to students. The Legislature must address the Court’s revival of the recommendation that the state adopt a compensation system focused “more on performance incentives than on attainment of additional teacher education.” 

Cutting what does not work 

The new system called for by the court is one where every program, every practice, every system is evaluated in terms of how it supports student learning.

Certainly the court indicates that this will require additional funds in particular areas, but such evaluations will also require some programs favored by adults to be discontinued for lack of results. The end of time-based teacher tenure, shifting to performance as the basis for tenure, is one example used in the studies cited by the Court.

An audit of current programs based on currently available data is the first place to start, and particularly important in the current budget climate. The next step toward cutting what does not work will be a more robust student learning data system as described above. 

Ending levy-funded wage bonuses

The Basic Education Finance Task Force, heavily cited by the ruling, recommended opposing levy-funded pay bonuses. The OSPI noted that $609 million of levy funds and levy equalization funds is diverted from services to add to the wages of employees already receiving a salary from the state.

The Court ruling noted with concern that $8,000 per instructional staff and $40,000 per administrator is funded this way.

The BEFTF recommended ending this practice except when time and purpose are specified. Repurposing levy funds for pay bonuses without requiring additional services is a strikingly inefficient use of funds. It does not add to student learning, nor does it even expand the range of services provided under most districts’ practices.

The Court has encouraged lawmakers to look past the economic interests of adults, and will now require the state to connect funds to learning and services. 

Ending Half-days 

The Court cites the BEFTF finding of the importance of professional development and suggestion to expand this expectation for educators. The old, status quo system is seriously flawed for two reasons.

First, professional development in most cases has no process for accountability and is not directed by administrators. Self-directed “professional development” can blur into personal leave. But second, and more disconcerting, is the growing tendency to carve professional development time out of the student schedule.

Many districts are expanding the number of late start and early-release days to facilitate adults’ interests. Some districts now have more than 20 partial school days in their 180-day schedule.

The studies are clear that student learning is related to instructional time, and the ruling gives impetus to overcoming adult objections and ending the half-day practice. 

The BEFTF recommended adding ten days to the employee work year for professional development, independent of the student learning days. In addition, the recommendation notes that these days “must be used for professional development or other district-directed activities and may not be used for salary increases.” 

Student-focused calendar 

The ruling is clear the school-funding model of the last century does not meet the expectations of today’s student-focused education system. The calendar of services must facilitate student learning, rather than being designed around adult desires.

The BEFTF found that the more rigorous high school graduation requirement will require 1,080 hours.

Likewise, the recommendation that kindergarten be offered full-day doubles the service that the community receives from public schools for these students.

The expectations for supplemental learning opportunities are also specified in the BEFTF findings.

In addition to the resources necessary to fund the model program, the state must provide resources that enable districts to provide supplemental instruction as necessary to provide students with a reasonable opportunity to meet the graduation requirements, including, underachieving students, English language learners receiving transitional bilingual instruction, and students with disabilities receiving special education services.

A student focused funding system will not presume that the adults will design a calendar which keeps their workload the same while student learning expectations increase. 

The Challenge 

Lawmakers are now on notice by the Court that the status quo—designed by adults to benefit adults—needs to go. The challenge for those who seek a better funding system will be to encourage lawmakers to adopt a new system which puts students’ interests ahead of those of adults.

The court held that more funding will be required, but lawmakers must not lose sight of the fact that the court also required the state to implement major reforms. Until those reforms are enacted, no one can know how much education spending is enough.

The Court made this point most clearly:

“Rather, the evidence in this case confirms what many educational experts and observers have long recognized: fundamental reforms are needed for Washington to meet its constitutional obligation to its students. Pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed.”

Policy Recommendations:

Simply adding dollars to the existing formula will not bring our education funding system into compliance with the Court ruling. Most of the decision is dedicated to reminding the legislature of the ideals for a new system which connects the public’s dollars to the public’s interest in student outcomes.

From the legislative studies describing these ideals as revived in the Court ruling, the state needs to adopt the following seven reforms:

  1. Connecting expenditures to student learning, and enabling the evaluation of the relationship between financial inputs and student achievement
  2. Investing in the measures and data system necessary to demonstrate student learning growth
  3. De-linking the adult salary system from credentials and longevity, and instead connecting it to effectiveness, service expectations and supply and demand
  4. Designing a school calendar and employee work expectations to meet student learning needs
  5. Creating the funding mechanism and administrative flexibility for supplemental education time and opportunities for students with greater needs
  6. Ending reliance on local levies and levy-funded wage enhancements for state-paid employees
  7. Making continuing contracts (“tenure”) based upon demonstrating effectiveness rather than teacher “seat time”

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