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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Key questions to ponder in education-funding battle

 

As legislators and their paid consultants struggle with how to answer the State Supreme Court’s latest education-funding question about determining “competitive market rates” for educators, a couple of thoughts press themselves to the fore as the drama moves toward a final act.

 

First, there’s an unfortunate sense that, in the press by the justices to make it clear to legislators which branch of government is ultimately in charge, what’s emerged is an effort to ensure that financial support of educators becomes the answer to education quality woes. No consideration is given to support for education in a broader sense.

 

Second, the well-worn phrase “You can’t just throw money at a problem” is one that seems to have eluded the state high court in its on-going education-funding struggle with the legislature over how much is enough.

 

At issue is the court’s January 2012 ruling, in what is now known as the McCleary case, that the legislature violated the state constitution by failing to amply fund basic education. Since then the court has found the lawmakers in contempt for not providing sufficient funding and has even threatened to take over the budgeting process (presenting what would seem to an amazing cartoonists’ opportunity).

 

Now the court has told the lawmakers to determine “competitive market rates” in terms of teacher salaries across the state and a final report on that point is due from a legislative consultant in November.

 

After that, lawmakers will try to find common ground on the sum of money required for salaries and where it is going to come from. The Legislature is supposed to take votes in 2017, or in the view of lawmakers in 2018, to put those final pieces in place in what has come to be known as the McCleary case.

 

Comes now the observation of Donald Nielsen, whom I best describe as an education “change agent,” whose views are dramatically suspect and irritating to those who disagree with him because he has no hidden agenda. He’s merely a business executive who made his fortune and decided nearly a quarter century ago to spend his time and money in the next phase of life seeking to make basic education better.

 

Nielsen is not an educator. But he is someone who is passionate about public education and has focused much of his attention on it since the early ‘90s, first traveling the country in search of education ideas that are working, then serving eight years on the Seattle School Board and a final year as president. His book, “Every School,” has brought his thoughts on education reform to the fore over the past couple of years in radio talk shows and newspaper interviews around the country.

 

“Schools do not have a funding problem, they have a regulatory problem,” Nielsen suggests. “If school administrators could spend their existing money as they believe is needed, they would spend it quite differently, and we would get better results.”   

 

His most in-your-face message is that “teachers are not underpaid, they are underemployed. This is not a compensation issue, it’s an employment issues.”

 

“The average teacher in Seattle, in 2013, was making $70,000 a year, employed  for 1320 hours,” he said. “All normal jobs employ people for 2080 hours a year so If that same teacher were employed for a normal year, his or her compensation would $110,300 a year on that 2080 basis.”

 

“Even beginning teachers who start at $40,000 a year are being paid the equivalent of $63,000 year,” he added. “In both cases, the teacher gets a benefit package that no private employer could afford to replicate.”  

 

Neither of these compensations is low,” Nielsen added.  “They are very competitive, and in rural areas, teachers are already among the best paid people in the community.”   

 

Discussion by the justices has never touched on suggesting the lawmakers focus on how the money is being spent, only how much is being spent, which makes another suggestion from Nielsen the kind of thing that at least might be in the discussion hopper.

 

“We need are variable contracts for teachers:  A nine month contract, a ten month contract and an eleven month contract, meaning the latter would make the $110,000 and the former would make the $70,000,” he said.  “Let the teachers decide what contract they want and let the district decide who gets each type of contract,” suggesting that approach could allow for some education options for different students.  

 

Unfortunately, it’s still uncertain whether the final act in this drama will be played out on the judicial or legislative stages since the nine justices of the state’s highest court have pressed the lawmakers, including with a contempt funding, to spend more dollars on education. At issue is the state’s constitutional mandate for adequate funding of basic education.

 

The justices, as far as I can tell, have never mentioned that lawmakers should also consider how the education dollars are being spent and could better education result from more insightful use of the dollars the lawmakers appropriate.

 

Maybe there’s still time, as the lines for the final act are just now being written in Olympia, for the idea of quality of expenditure rather than just quantity of expenditure to be raised.

 

In a case replete with issues relating to powerful education forces focused only on dollars, it might be worth combatants who finally seem hopeful of averting a real constitutional crisis to be aware of an unsettling statistic that Nielsen has included in his book.

In summing up the details of the chart in his book, Nielsen notes: “We now spend three times as much per child in inflation-adjusted dollars as we did in 1970 and we also have four times as many adults in our schools with only eight percent more children. And we’ve had no measurable improvement in academic achievement.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Voters, rather than the High Court or lawmakers, should decide school funding

What the Washington State Supreme Court seems to have done, with its ruling last week that charter schools violate the state constitution, is to reinforce its message to the governor and the legislature: "you are not in charge in this state. We are."

And anyone who agrees with the assessment that the state highest court's two education-funding cases amount to unsettling steps into the separation-of-powers arena could also agree that the constitutional question the court is thus raising is one that merits a focused public discussion.

The question of whether the Supreme Court has embarked on an undesirable drift away from the principal of three equal branches of government can be put into discussion by conversation on social media and analysis and commentary from traditional media.

But closure to that question in the form of "a ruling" by the state's citizens, the ultimate court to which all three branches of government answer, can only come in a meaningful way with the kind of debate that occurs during election season when the judges actually have to face public scrutiny.

Meaning the three Supreme Court judges up for re-election a year from now, three of whom were in the majority in the 6-3 ruling, including Chief Justice Barbara Madsen who wrote the majority opinion, should face opponents who feel the court has encroached inappropriately on the essential separation of powers.

The value of competition in next year's election for those three justices, Charles Wiggins and James Johnson in addition to Madsen, isn't to seek to punish them for their views but rather to ensure a sufficient airing of public attitudes on the issue of whether they are endangering the proper separation of powers.

Certainly the role of the Supreme Court is to have the last word, passing judgement on laws passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. But what troubles concerned legal observers is that in the two education-funding decisions, the court has assumed for itself the first word, telling the governor and the legislature what they WILL do rather than passing judgment on what they did.

If the sitting judges are voted out, it will amount to an affirmation of the view that the court has gone too far and the remaining six judges can then ignore that at their peril.

Now for a review of the court decisions that lead to the questions about limitation of the powers of the court and the possible abandonment of the tradition that the high court imposes those constraints on itself.

The court's most recent ruling held that charter schools are unconstitutional, ultimately because they are governed by appointed rather than elected boards and that the constitution requires that the boards that oversee common schools must be elected.

The state constitution merely requires adequate support for common schools. So in decreeing that elected boards must govern common schools, the court has basically usurped the legislative and gubernatorial right to decide in the future the manner in which the constitutional funding requirement can be best carried out. That means the lawmakers might want to decide whether funding oversight is best served by elected or appointed boards, perhaps at the state level.

Budget leaders in both houses and both parties have suggested that the state take a larger role in oversight, as in setting pay, for example. And some lawmakers are even convinced that they have to do that, since the lawmakers, just as they are answerable to students to provide a good education, are answerable to state taxpayers to ensure that those school dollars the court has ordered them to increase are being spent as wisely as possible.

They realize they need to step into the management role in ways that could elude locally elected school boards.

In the first education-funding decision, known as the "McCleary decision," the court ordered the legislature to spend more money on education, then followed up by holding the lawmakers in contempt for failing to provide enough additional funding. And in the past few weeks the court actually imposed a $100,000-a-day fine on the lawmakers to failing to "sufficiently" fund education.

In that McCleary ruling, the court said common schools funding needed to be 'ample" but also "uniform" and "stable."

Now the court's sole position is spend more money, focusing only on "ample" while saying it has "no opinion" on the "stable" or "uniform" points.

Some court observers have described as curious the fact that the high court backed off from two of the three central points on education funding, leaving only the edict of spend more money.

And since in the constitution, common schools specifically excluded high schools and "normal schools," (which became the state's Eastern, Central and Western state universities) the court may have cast doubt on the constitutionality other programs not overseen by elected boards, like Running Start, a program by which high school students can gain college credit.

All represent more than enough reason for deliberation beyond the legislators, governor and the courts to include the public in decisions about where the state should go with education funding and the process by which that should occur. 
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