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Washington State's New Funding Formula Props Up State Powers

Washington state's superintendent will have plenty more power to scrutinize district spending if the state supreme court accepts its new funding formula.

Passed in the final hours of this year's legislative session and signed into law July 6 by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, the formula will add $7.3 billion to state education spending over the next four years. Its the culmination of a years-long partisan (and animated) legislative fight following a 2012 state supreme court decision that determined local communities shouldered way too much of the public school system's education costs.

The state supreme court is expected to weigh into the constitutionality of the funding formula in one to two months, according to local media reports.  

The state, in response to the McCleary v. State of Washington decision, spent more to expand pre-K and all-day kindergarten, but struggled in finding a way to boost teacher pay. The state ultimately raised the money by shifting state and local property tax rates so that the minimum starting salary for teachers is $40,000. 

The billions more dollars approved in the most recent formula come with strings attached, said Chris Reykdal, the state's superintendent of public instruction."We're now in the driver's seat in making sure dollars are spent consistent with legislators' priorities," Reykdal said about his office.  

Districts with more English-language learner students and low-income students will be given more money, and districts will be required to garner more resources toward career-tech programs.  

The state's education department will annually evaluate district spending to assure the legislature that districts are effectively targeting both state and local money toward struggling students, rather than replacing local money with state money.

While previously, there was a statewide pay scale for teachers, the law allows for districts to set their own teacher pay scale to more closely match local price of living costs. The state will instead create a sample pay scale for teachers, though districts aren't obligated to follow it.  

"We're going to see a lot more diversity from district to district [on teacher pay] and it'll depend a lot on local districts' bargaining agreements," Rykdal said. The state currently has a statewide teacher shortage. 

Washington is one of many states in the nation where policymaking power has gradually centralized in the last decade. With the new funding formula and the implementation of the state's accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, that centralization will only accelerate state lawmakers say.  

Because Washington's legislature is forking over more money, lawmakers feel they should be given more powers, too. (Under ESSA, some states, such as California and North Dakota, will shift spending powers and powers to define school success to district superintendents and local school boards.)   

"The constitution places a very high responsibility on the legislature for not just the budgeting aspects but also the policy aspects of education," Sharon Tomiko Santos, Washington's chairwoman of the house education committee said during an interview with Education Week last month. "We're coming off an era of 10 years where we had too many heads who were claiming responsibility for the direction of education policy. It's very confusing, and we've been moving in diametrically opposite directions."   

Reykdal is pushing a bill he said would more clearly define the state superintendent, but which the board has said would further dismantle local powers. The board is partly elected by local school board members and typically has been the venue where district officials voice their opinion.  

At the end of this year's session, the bill had stalled in the house education committee and will likely be taken up by the legislature next year. 

"I personally think there's a real valuable role for the state board of education," said Reykdal who spent plenty of time this year asking legislators what they'd like to see in the state's ESSA plan. "But we need to clarify that they're big picture policy and we're the implementers. We're the executive branch. All the implementation details is our job."

When the bill was first introduced, Ben Rarick, the state board's executive director, said to Education Week that board members are best suited to craft the details of the state's accountability policy, not legislators. 

"We're entering an era, with the importance of ESSA, where most of the board's signature authority in terms of state accountability systems is being stripped," Rarick said. "The board has been a significant player in improving the state's accountability system, and it's the main way that stakeholders see transparency in public deliberations on these topics." 


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