Basic education – A complicated answer to a fairly simple question

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  • Columbia Basin Herald/file photo School districts may have to make some hard decisions in the wake of the 'McCleary fix.'

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    Columbia Basin Herald/file photo School districts may have to make some hard decisions in the wake of the ‘McCleary fix.’

  • Columbia Basin Herald/file photo School districts may have to make some hard decisions in the wake of the 'McCleary fix.'

  • 1

    Columbia Basin Herald/file photo School districts may have to make some hard decisions in the wake of the ‘McCleary fix.’

By CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE

For The Sun Tribune

“[T]he broad guidelines which we have provided do not contemplate that the State must furnish ‘total education’ in the sense of all knowledge of the offering of all program, subjects, or services … . Specifically, then, we shall refer to the legislature’s obligation as one to provide ‘basic education’ through a basic program of education as distinguished from total ‘education’ or all other ‘educational’ programs, subjects, or services which might be offered.” — The Washington State Supreme Court ruling in Seattle School District No. 1 v. State, 1977.

MOSES LAKE — School is one of the few things nearly all Americans still have in common.

Which means we all have experiences — good and bad — of public education, of what we think works, and what we think needs to be fixed.

“All of us went to school,” said Seattle attorney Tom Ahearne. “All of us are experts on education. All of us know what’s messed up.”

Ahearne was one of the attorneys representing the McCleary and Venema families as they challenged state school funding more than a decade ago — a history outlined in Monday’s story.

However, theirs was not the first challenge. In the mid-1970s, after several local levy failures left the Seattle School District in a desperate financial situation, the district sued the state and won after claiming the legislature had failed in its constitutional duty to fund education.

From those 1977 court rulings, as well as the Basic Education Act passed by the legislature, the notion of “basic education” came into being.

“In an earlier round of lawsuits, a trial court, and then the state supreme court, ruled that education does not mean everything under the sun,” Ahearne said. “The state is allowed to design a program to meet this.”

That word, “program,” is important. Because basic education is less a noun, a discrete thing that can be pointed at, than it is a verb, a process with intended outcomes. In short, “basic education” is what the state says it is.

And more importantly, what the state will pay for.

Under Washington state law, “[a] basic education is an evolving program of instruction that is intended to provide students with the opportunity to”:

• Become responsible and respectful global citizens.

• Contribute to their economic well-being and that of their families and communities.

• Explore and understand different perspectives, and to enjoy productive and satisfying lives.

To accomplish these things, schools are expected “to develop the knowledge and skills essential” to reading, math, history, science, the arts, health, fitness and critical thinking.

And to accomplish all that, schools are to provide 1,000 hours of teaching and learning for every child in kindergarten through eighth grade and 1,080 hours for high schoolers, and all this over the course of at least 180 days. Basic education also includes bilingual instruction, special education, programs for “highly capable” kids, career and technical education, transportation, and special programs for kids struggling in school.

What basic education doesn’t include is anything beyond that 1,000 or 1,080 hours — including sports and music.

“The are no extracurricular activities that shall be funded with basic education dollars,” said Josh Meek, the superintendent of the Moses Lake School District.

“Kids spend significantly more time in school, and that’s all paid for locally,” said Jeremy Pitts, president of the Moses Lake Education Association.

The state funds all of this on the basis of formulas the legislature believes will effectively staff and operate a school. For example, current state law guarantees a “minimum allocation” for a teacher’s salary plus benefits for:

• One teacher for every 17 students in grades K-3;

• One teacher for every 27 students in grades 4-6;

• One teacher for every 28.53 students in grades 7-8;

• One teacher for every 28.74 students in grades 9-12 (though class size allocations for science labs and career and technical education are smaller).

There are school-level allocations as well for personnel at each prototypical school, ranging from 1.253 principals per elementary school, to 1.216 guidance counselors per middle school, to 0.007 psychologists per high school.

The salaries paid, however, are average salaries, and not actual salaries. In the current 2018-19 school year, the state pays a district $65,216 for each teacher, though some make less and some make more. The same is true of classified personnel ($46,784) and administrators ($96,805).

Each district also receives payments on a per-student basis to cover materials and operating costs, like textbooks, computers, paper, and maintenance.

“It is complicated,” said Michelle Matakas, the associate director of school apportionment and financial services for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia.

“This is a funding allocation model, not a staffing model,” said Michelle Price, Superintendent of the North Central Educational Service District and former Moses Lake superintendent. “Schools make decisions about who they will hire, and how many, though they don’t have as much flexibility as they used to.”

For example, in 2016-17 (the last year OSPI has complete staffing and salary data; 2017-18 won’t be available until late March at the earliest), the Moses Lake schools were funded for 359.51 teachers but actually employed 367.46 teachers district wide.

That same year, the district was funded for 14.85 counselors but hired 17.10, 37.16 office support people but hired 54.48, and 1.49 security personnel but hired 7.26.

“I would challenge you to find a district who really, truly is able to run their district at the actual state staffing levels,” Meek said. “So it forces you to rely on local dollars.”

This is why the argument over “basic education” is so crucial. Despite promises since 1979 from the state legislature of full funding, districts have for years used local levies to meet community needs and make up for the shortfall in state funds even for basic, essential programs.

And now, it’s a lot harder to do that.

NEXT WEEK: How three school districts in Grant County are facing a potentially bleak future.

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