Decoding the Fake Five Billion Increase in School Funding in Washington State

Decoding the Fake Five Billion Increase in School Funding in Washington State

Many in the Washington legislature claim they increased school funding by nearly $5 billion in the past 4 years. If our schools have $5 billion more than they had 4 years ago, then why do our schools have one thousand fewer teachers than we had 4 years ago? In their June 17 2016 court filing, the McCleary plaintiffs claimed that the $5 billion increase in funding was an "illusion" and less than a mere "maintenance level of status quo education funding." In this report, we will decode the fake $5 billion increase in school funding in Washington state to explain why the McCleary plaintiffs are correct. Don't be fooled by dishonest legislators. Our schools are facing a funding crisis that is getting worse every year. Our class sizes are among the highest in the nation and getting higher every year. Class sizes are so high that teachers are quitting in droves. Half of our schools do not even have enough qualified math and science teachers. Legislators who claim that they are "making progress on school funding" should be ashamed of themselves. There has been no progress at all in the past 4 years. Please share this important report with parents and teachers.

We will begin with a quote from the State legislature's latest June 17 2016 filing to the Washington Supreme Court: "The State has made very real and concrete progress since 2012. In attempting to discredit that progress, Plaintiffs wrongly claim that the $4.8 billion increase in education funding between the 2011-13 biennium and the 2015-17 biennium is illusory and is actually less than if the State had merely maintained the "status quo" level of services... The enacted public schools budget for 2015-17 was $18.2 billion. That was an increase from the approximately $15.3 billion for public schools in 2013-15, which had increased from approximately $13.4 billion in the 2011-13 budget."

Here is a chart showing biennial (two year) state spending on our public schools since the beginning of the 2007 McCleary Education Funding Case:


It certainly looks like there was nearly a $5 billion increase in state spending on our public schools in the past 4 years. This would be a 36% increase in school funding!

But if there was really a 36% increase in school funding, then why wasn't there a 36% increase in the number of teachers? Why did the number of teachers go down by one thousand rather than going up by ten thousand? The McCleary Plaintiffs have called this $4.8 billion ($2.4 billion per year) increase in spending an "illusion" because it is less than what would have been spent by a mere "maintenance of service" budget. To understand this, let's look at a Maintenance of Service budget. A Maintenance of Service budget includes adjusting for the increased cost of living from year to year plus the increase in the number of students. A Maintenance of Service budget would have involved an increase of about 5% per year or 10% per biennium. To keep the math simple, we will assume that 10% is $1.4 billion per biennium (10% of $14 billion).


Thus, a Maintenance of Services budget would have resulted in school funding being nearly one billion dollars greater than the $4.8 billion increase the legislature is bragging about. Here is a chart of the increase in the number of students in Washington State since January 2012 from the OSPI Report Card:


When the actual budget is less than the maintenance budget, school districts are forced to fire teachers and increase class sizes. Here is a chart of the reduction in the number of teachers in Washington state since January 2012 from the OSPI Report Card:


Note that the actual number of real classroom teachers is about 20,000 less than this because many school districts incorrectly report administrators as classroom teachers. We know this because the median actual class size in Washington state is more than 30 students - and getting higher and higher every year. However, because the reporting method has not changed, we can be certain that the actual number of classroom teachers declined by more than one thousand during the four years since the January 2012 Supreme Court ruling. Even in 2012, class sizes in Washington state were among the highest in the nation.

The most accurate estimate of class sizes comes from a national survey of classroom teachers in which teachers are asked how many students are in their average classroom. This survey indicates that for Grades 1 through 6, the national average class size is 21 students and the average class size in Washington state is 24 students. For Grades 7 through 12, the national average class size is 27 students and the average class size in Washington state is 30 students.

Here is a distribution of class sizes showing which states have low, average, above average or extremely high class sizes:

However, even this survey of teachers under-reports the actual class sizes in the nation and in Washington state because it includes Special Education teachers who often have classes of under 10 students. Excluding Special Education classes, the typical or median class size in the US is likely close to 29 students and in Washington state, it is likely close to 32 students.

How can Washington have $4.8 billion in additional education funding - a 36% increase - and not hire a single new teacher?
There are several factors that contribute to the "illusion" of increased funding. The first factor is fund transfers from one account to another. An example of this is transferring hundreds of millions of dollars from the school capital budget account to the school operating budget account. This results in the illusion of an increase in school funding. But because real school districts have to fund both operating and repairing schools, increasing operating funds while reducing funds in other areas does not actually result in a real increase in funds.

The second factor is unfunded mandates. For example, the legislature recently mandated that all schools in Washington state use the Common Core standards written by Wall Street consultants rather than the Washington state learning standards written by Washington state teachers. This forced school districts to replace hundreds of millions of dollars of text books with new Common Core aligned text books. The switch to the SBAC test, which requires computers to complete, required school districts to buy hundreds of millions of dollars of new computers and computer programs.

The third factor is the hidden cost of inflation also called the Maintenance of Services budget. Real inflation including the cost of health insurance, food and everything else is much higher than 5% per year. As we have previously shown, an increase of 5% a year would have been nearly one billion dollars higher than the current $18.2 billion per biennium. This is why a more accurate estimate of education funding is the Percent of Income method - which more accurately adjusts for the rising cost of living. Below is school funding in Washington state, as a percent of income compared to the national average. You can see that school funding in Washington state, as a percent of income, has been plunging for the past 20 years.


The Levy Swipe will Rob One Billion dollars from King County Schools... Another Way to Increase State Spending without Hiring Teachers
These are not the end of the legislature's deceptive tricks. In 2017, the legislature is likely to pass the Levy Swipe - which will rob one billion dollars in local levy funds from King County Schools and transfer it to the State General Fund where it will be used to increase funding for other school districts in the State by one billion dollars per year. This will increase State Spending for schools by $1 billion per year or $2 billion per biennium (to a total of $20 billion per biennium). But it will cause a loss of about 10,000 teachers in King County and an increase of 10,000 teachers in other parts of our state. Note that the total number of teachers statewide will not increase at all. This is the kind of nonsense that passes for "increasing school funding" in Olympia. Meanwhile, the deadline for fully funding our schools is the beginning of the 2017 school year - which is only one year away. McCleary v. State, 173 Wn.2d 477, 483, 269 P.3d 227 (2012)

We Must Change the Debate from Dollars to Class Size Limits
The real issue that students, parents and teachers must focus on is not some fake dollar amount that can be manipulated by our corrupt legislature but actual class sizes.Specifically, are class sizes small enough so that struggling students can get the help they need? Research such as the Tennessee STAR study confirms that actual class sizes must be below 20 students per class. Currently, class sizes in Washington are way too big at over 30 students per class. The problem with extremely high class sizes is that struggling students cannot get the help they need to succeed in school and succeed in life. Teachers burdened with extremely high class sizes also suffer from burnout - leading to the current shortage of experienced teachers. A June 2016 national study concluded that small class sizes were the single most important strategy for improving student outcomes - especially for improving outcomes among low income and minority students.

Meanwhile students in Washington state are forced to deal with the highest class sizes in the nation - a disaster that can only be changed by REAL increases in State funding for public schools.

Instead of focusing in on dollars - which just leads to corrupt legislators playing a shell game with school funding and fake claims of billions of dollar increases, we should change the focus to lowering average and maximum class sizes to below 20 students per class. 37 states now have laws limiting the average and maximum class size. Thanks to Initiative 1351, Washington is now one of those 37 States. Initiative 1351 limits the maximum class size to 17 students in elementary school and 25 students in secondary school. Even this would be considered a high class size in many developed nations. For example, in Finland, the average class size for both elementary and secondary school is 20 students per class.

The problem with Initiative 1351 is that it will cost billions of dollars to implement but did not come with a funding source. The lack of a funding source was the excuse used by the legislature to delay implementation of 1351 for the 2023 school year. But the good news is that this Class Size Limiting law is still on the books.

The Total Cost of Fully Funding Schools is More than $10 billion per year
Tom Ahearne, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the McCleary case, estimates that it will cost at least $8 billion more per biennium, plus an additional $2 billion in capital costs for new K-3 classrooms and all-day kindergarten. But he also thinks the minimum should include two other things: First, cost-of-living increases for school staff. Second, other capital expenses, like renovating school buildings that are falling apart. This would cost several more billion per year. Adding $10 billion per year would more than double state school funding here in Washington state (which is currently $9 billion per year). This may seem like a lot - but the legislature is currently giving away four dollars to wealthy corporations for every one dollar they invest in our schools.


The truth is that the legislature would have plenty of money to fully fund schools and small class sizes, including Initiative 1351, if they did not give away $36 billion per year in tax breaks to wealthy multinational corporations.

It is basic math. We cannot allow our legislature to give away $36 billion per year in tax breaks for wealthy corporations and still have enough money left to fully fund our schools and lower class sizes. This is why in their latest filing to the Supreme Court on June 17 2016, the plaintiffs for the McCleary case specifically asked the Court to declare tax breaks to be unconstitutional. Here is a quote from their brief:

"Plaintiffs continue to believe the most effective options to compel the significant revenue and funding actions needed to comply in that 2017 regular session are the school statute and tax exemption statute options discussed in plaintiffs’ prior filings... have all tax exemption statutes enacted by the legislature (before amply funding K-12 schools) struck down as unconstitutional, effective the first day of the 2017-2018 school year."

Sadly, our corrupt legislature is not about to reduce these tax breaks. Instead, they have continued to increase tax breaks every year - despite a direct order from our Supreme Court to comply with their Paramount Duty to fully fund our schools. It is more likely that the legislature would rather see our schools closed in 2017 than to close tax loopholes for their corporate backers.

Because the legislature will not really reduce tax breaks for the corporations that pay for their elections, the only REAL solution to the school funding crisis is for our Supreme Court to declare these billions in tax breaks to be unconstitutional - which is exactly what the McCleary plaintiffs have done.

But there is a fatal problem with their request to declare all tax exemptions to be unconstitutional. While the Supreme Court has the authority to declare laws (including tax exemptions) to be unconstitutional, the Supreme Court may not have the authority to declare what level of funding is constitutional. This brings up the question of what would happen next if the Supreme Court decided to grant the McCleary plaintiffs to relief they are requesting and declared billions of dollars in tax exemptions to be unconstitutional.

Here is what State claimed in their June 17 2016 response to the Plaintiffs brief:
"The Washington Constitution does not confer on Plaintiffs—or on the Superintendent of Public Instruction, for that matter—the authority to, determine the measure of ample funding under article IX, section 1. It is for the Legislature to determine in the first instance what constitutes "ample provision" for the State's program of basic education."

It is revolting that our Attorney General would write something so completely wrong. Article 9, Section 1 of our State Constitution does not grant the State legislature the right to determine what constitutes "ample provision" for the education of all children in our state. Instead, Article 9, Section 1 clearly assigns this Paramount Duty to the entire State Government - not merely to the State legislature!

Here is what Article IX, Section 1 of our State Constitution really says:


While other state constitutions made it the duty of the state legislature to fund schools, the Washington Constitution made it the "paramount duty of the State." Notice that Article 9 Section 1 does not merely refer to the State legislature. It refers to our entire State government - which includes the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In other words, it is the Paramount Duty of every branch of State Government to make ample provision for the education of all children.

Also while other state constitutions use the term "make adequate provision", the Washington State Constitution uses the term "make ample provision." Clearly ample means more than the term adequate. So if Washington has the strongest duty for school funding in the nation, why are our schools among the lowest funded and most over-crowded in the nation? The legislature does have a specific duty which is described in Article 9, Section 2 of our State Constitution:


The words "shall provide" means that it is the duty of the legislature to provide the funding as required by the State to amply fund our schools. But the legislature is not the only branch of state government. This leaves the question of which branch of state government is given the duty of determining what an ample level of funding would be for our public schools?

This question is clearly answered in Article 3, Section 22 of our State Constitution: "The Superintendent of Public Instruction shall have supervision over all matters pertaining to public schools."


The term "all matters" means that the Superintendent of Public Instruction, as a separately elected branch of state government shall have supervision over each and every aspect of our public schools - including the matter of what level of funding is required by our schools and whether or not the legislature is complying with their Paramount Duty to provide that level of funding. To make this point abundantly clear, the drafters of our state constitution included the following clause to Article 2, Section 28 prohibiting the legislature from interfering with the management of our public schools:


The drafters of our state constitution stated that they wanted to limit the power of the legislature regarding our public schools because they feared that a corrupt legislature might drive our schools into the ground. This is why they wanted a separately elected Superintendent of Public Instruction to be in charge of all matters regarding our public schools.

This is also why the drafters of our State Constitution wanted an independent Supreme Court also elected directly by the people - to act as a check against a corrupt legislature passing laws that were contrary to the Paramount Duty of our State Constitution. Our Supreme Court clearly has the power to declare any statute to be invalid if that statute makes it impossible for the State to carry out its Paramount Duty of amply funding our public schools.


If we are really going to solve the school funding crisis, voters need to become much more knowledgeable about the number of teachers and actual class sizes here in Washington state. When legislators are under-funding our schools by $10 billion per year, or $20 billion per biennium, then making claims about adding $5 billion per biennium, this is simply one more example of corrupt politicians trying to mislead the public.

We also need to be much more knowledgeable about where the money is really going to that has been diverted away from our public schools. Any politician that talks about any solution other than repealing tax breaks for wealthy corporations is misleading the public. The underlying cause of our school funding crisis is $36 billion per year in tax breaks for wealthy corporations.

Finally, voters need to become much more knowledgeable about our State Constitution. In our next article, we will take a closer look at the exact words used in our State Constitution, what they really mean, who put them there and why they were put there. The key to understanding our State Constitution is that it was written by people who deeply feared that a corrupt legislature would refuse to fund our public schools. So they put several clauses in our State Constitution specifically to take power AWAY from the legislature and put it in the hands of independently elected people with the hope that they would force the legislature to fund our schools. This is exactly where we are today.

As always, we look forward to your questions and comments.

David Spring M. Ed.
Candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction