Senate Nearly Fixes Education Funding Loophole

Senate Nearly Fixes Education Funding Loophole

Senate Nearly Fixes Education Funding Loophole

Everyone in Washington, whether they see the issue from the Right or the Left, is growing weary of the ongoing drama of “fully funding education.”

“Are we there yet?” “What is basic education?” “Why can’t they get it done?” and, “How much is enough?” are frequent questions.

The Washington State Supreme Court has been chastising the Legislature through a series of orders pushing for more. The court-ordered deadline for lawmakers to fix the funding system to the justices’ standards is 2018.

“Funding” isn’t the point, though. Those who talk about insufficient funding are concealing the real problem.

The key is the services which are purchased. In other words, what are taxpayers buying?

Since the McCleary ruling, lawmakers have bought new services for families even though these new services were never part of the 2012 definition of basic education. 

These new purchases have increased education spending at the state level by 34 percent since the 2012 ruling.

What lawmakers have been buying includes:

  • the full cost of transporting students to and from school;
  • full-day kindergarten services;
  • materials for students (increased 125 percent);
  • extra services (hopefully) for students with unique needs; and,
  • smaller class sizes in the grades where research shows it matters.

What’s left to buy? Pay raises for employees, which was almost certainly the end game of the WEA-funded McCleary lawsuit all along. Because pay raises are not service improvements, they have not been the top priority.

So far.

Why is it taking so long?

First, increasing the pay of 150,000 employees is very expensive. Funding advocates have a reason for frequently talking about tax increases even though the state has managed a 34 percent increase in the K-12 education budget in just four years.

Second, the goal of higher salaries is plagued with hard decisions:

  • Will the state continue the wage disparity between districts which is caused by union bargaining? Or will it make salaries uniform statewide as was originally intended with the adoption of a state salary schedule for teachers?
  • Will the state take sole responsibility of salaries and end local bargaining for wages? Or will it allow local union bargaining to continue to divert levy and other funds from local priorities to wage enhancements?
  • Will the state, once it increases salaries, return to lower local levy limits to account for the end of levy-funded salary enhancements?  Or will it continue layer the state funding increases on top of the recently increased local tax levies?

2016 is not a budget year, and significant changes are rarely considered in off-years. This fact, plus the court’s insistence that the Legislature must create a plan for future lawmaking and budgets, led to the proposal of House Bill 2366 and Senate Bill 6195.

Rather than answer the three hard decisions, however, these measures hint at solutions and commission studies.

The bills lay out the next steps for considering school employee salaries and levy reform. Rep. Matt Manweller (R-Ellensburg) offered a great speech denouncing the repeated practice of adopting laws binding the actions of future legislators.

In the Senate, however, the bill was amended to include a recommendation the Freedom Foundation has repeated for years—return to the ban on union officials’ ability to grab levy and other funds for wage increases.

The state’s own Joint Task Force on Basic Education Finance, which gave rise to the McCleary ruling, also recommends:

“Restrict supplemental pay beyond the standard contract for teachers and other education professionals to activities that require additional time.  (Currently, teachers often have supplemental contracts based on “time, responsibilities, and incentives.”) Supplemental contracts must specify the minimum amount of additional time required, its purpose, and the amount of the contract. This information must be reported in a common format to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to improve transparency and analysis.”

The Senate version of the solution bill, Senate Bill 6195, finally adopted this abandoned recommendation:

“Beginning July 1, 2016, salaries and benefits for certificated instructional staff may exceed the limitations provided (in state-provided salary) . . . through a separate local compensation contract, which shall only be for … Additional recorded time … “

The WEA lobby machine went into high gear.

Since the WEA is in the business of collecting dues to negotiate, it could not allow any reduction in their power to plunder funds from levies and the new state money intended for student materials. Its negotiating plan for school districts across the state clearly states that teachers should be getting 5 percent raises per year as a result of local bargaining:

“What we do know is that the $2.9 billion (education funding) increase provides new funds to the districts, and most of that money can be bargained at the local level.”

Senators received hundreds of form messages saying:

“The bill … thanks to Republicans on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, would restrict teachers’ ability to bargain for TRI pay with their local school districts … Vote this down.”

The union wants the state to fund salaries as high as they can dream of, but to leave the loophole allowing unions to overpower weak school boards to increase salaries even more. Keep in mind, the only proof offered that wages are not high enough is that local boards have been enhancing the salaries.

On Feb. 18, the Senators on the Floor retreated from closing the loophole and passed the bill. Within a day, the House had passed it and sent it to the governor’s desk.

Unless the legislature closes the loophole allowing new state funds and local levies to be raided by aggressive bargaining, the new spending will not actually provide new services.

In time, the siphoning of education funds from services to wage enhancement will once again create the impression of scarcity of resources in public education.

And again, that shortfall of funds will be blamed on the state.

Senior Policy Analyst
Jami Lund is the Freedom Foundation’s Senior Policy Analyst. From 2004 to 2011, he developed legislative policy as a research analyst for the Washington House Republican Caucus. Prior to that he worked for the Freedom Foundation as the Project Manager for the Teachers Paycheck Protection project, shepherding the development of the Foundation’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court case to protect teacher rights. Jami is an accomplished speaker and researcher, one of Washington state’s top scholars on education policy and finance.