Most Washingtonians would agree that good schools – from early learning all the way through higher education – are essential for our collective well-being as a state. This legislative session, lawmakers have the opportunity to help create an education system that will offer better opportunities for Washington state’s kids and young people. While much of the conversation in the Legislature right now is centered on the money, it should be focused on what’s at stake – equal opportunity for future generations to reach their full potential.
Our Progress Index shows that progress is stalled or going backward on 11 out of 13 indicators related to education in our state (see Figure 1 for a summary; and see the full Progress Index to review all the data we use to measure progress). For example:
- Just 39 percent of children entering kindergarten show up with the skills they need to succeed in school, and the opportunity gap for children of color is evident upon entry;
- Progress has stalled on several key achievement indicators (e.g., proficiency in 3rd grade reading and 8th grade math), as well as indicators correlated with future success in college and the labor market (e.g., on-time graduation). Many students of color continue to fall behind their peers as they move through K-12;
- As higher education becomes less affordable, student debt is increasing. Decreased access to higher education has affected our state’s ability to fill competitive-level jobs that require college-level degrees. It also has exacerbated the racial and ethnic gap when it comes to opportunities for good jobs.
Progress on education is stalled due to our broken revenue system. Our state has unbalanced tax policies that favor wealthy families and big businesses, and it disproportionately relies on revenue from low- and middle-income families and small businesses. As a result, funding for education has fallen behind by 14 percent since 2008. On top of that, the Legislature needs to increase funding for K-12 education by $4.5 billion to fulfill requirements under the Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling and to give teachers – who haven’t had a cost-of-living increase in six years – a long-overdue raise.
Proposed Budget Investments
The good news is that lawmakers are taking steps to strengthen
Washington state’s education system. Both the House and Senate budget
proposals take steps to invest in early learning, K-12, and higher
education. The proposed investments, however, differ in magnitude (see Figure 2).
Both budgets recognize that investing in our youngest learners is one of best things we can do to improve the future success of kids and close the opportunity gaps experienced by children of color and children from low-income families. They propose:
- Quality improvements through the Early Start Act: This act gives child care providers the tools to improve the quality of care children receive and helps parents gain access to valuable information about child care settings. While both budgets invest in the Early Start Act, the House investment is more than twice that of the Senate’s ($114 million versus $50 million). Further, the Senate proposal is missing a key provision that allows families with low incomes to retain their child care for a continuous 12 months, regardless of changes in circumstances that may impact eligibility (e.g., they get a raise or higher-paying job).
- Additional slots for preschool: Both budgets provide funding to allow more children to go to preschool and receive health and family support services
through the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. The House investment would fund preschool services for an additional 6,358 children ($72 million). The Senate budget funds an additional 4,000 slots ($45 million).
K-12 Public Schools
With the State Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling and a contempt order looming, funding for K-12 public schools is a focal point of the budget proposals from both the House and Senate. Although large investments are made, some reforms are neglected. Both bills propose:
- Heavy investments in McCleary reforms: When it comes to funding the major components of basic education reforms under McCleary, the House and Senate budgets are largely aligned. Both invest in maintenance, supplies, and operating costs; all-day kindergarten; and smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade (K-3). This costs a total of about $1.3 billion.
- Not to fully fund smaller class sizes called for by Initiative 1351: Although about $400 million is invested in lowering class sizes for K-3, neither budget funds smaller class sizes in the higher grades or additional school staff. Funding smaller class sizes in K-12 won the support of voters who favored Initiative 1351, and would cost an additional $1.6 billion in the next two years.
- Not to address schools’ reliance on local tax levies: Full funding of basic education is the state’s responsibility, but local levies play a significant role in funding things like teacher salaries and textbooks. The McCleary ruling makes it clear that this is unconstitutional. As a result, new proposals have recently surfaced from both chambers.
Washington state students experienced the second-biggest tuition hike in the nation since the start of the recession. The House and Senate budgets present differing strategies to make college more affordable, as follows:
- Addressing rising tuition costs: The Senate budget proposal lowers the cost of education for students by limiting tuition to a percentage of the state’s average wage. The House takes a different approach to affordability by freezing tuition for the next two years.
- Providing financial aid: Addressing tuition costs will make college more affordable for middle-income students, but any proposal should be paired with an increase in financial aid to make college more of a reality for lower-income students. Currently, a lack of investment prevents over 30,000 eligible Washington state students from receiving financial aid. The Senate’s tuition-cost reduction plan would cut funding for the State Need Grant (SNG) and the College Bound Scholarship by $75 million, further limiting opportunities for aspiring students. The House budget would invest $53 million in the SNG to serve additional students.
Funding for education helps ensure our schools keep and recruit talented teachers. It also provides up-to-date technology, good textbooks, necessary school supplies, reliable school-bus services, and safe buildings. These are all essential resources to provide our youngest and oldest students with the skills they need to be successful in school and life.
While it’s certainly commendable that both the House and Senate have made education a priority in their budget proposals, more needs to be done. The status quo is not an option. We cannot afford not to fix our broken revenue system. To make progress as a society, our state should have a world-class, equitable system for all students. That includes high-quality teachers, curriculum, and enrichment activities throughout early learning, K-12, and higher education. The way to make this happen? Lawmakers must ensure we have adequate revenue to create such a system.
To read our additional recommendations for how to improve our state’s education system, visit the education section of our Progress Index. Stay tuned for “Progress in Focus” blog posts on the other sections of the Index.
NOTE: Data on early learning and child care in the Progress Index can be found in both the Education and Good Jobs sections. While the early learning system should, first and foremost, be an investment in child development, it is also critical to the needs of working families.