Five years ago, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case, McCleary v Washington, that our state was failing to fully fund the public education every student is guaranteed by our state constitution. For the last few years, our state legislators have been grappling with how to meet court’s mandate and fix the McCleary problem once and for all — so we don’t land back in a situation where our public education system is hurting our children and limiting their access to a quality education.
But this year, things feel poised to change. Legislators have been hard at work, seizing McCleary as an opportunity to replace these harmful systems and fulfill the promise of providing high quality public education for every Washington’s student and family.
As legislators worked toward the end of the second special session, a complicated but necessary policy change is in play: the elimination of the staff mix factor.
What is the staff mix factor? It’s a confusing part of our current funding formula that reflects the average years of experience and level of education of the teachers working in each district. Essentially, “staff mix factor” is a number that determines how much funding every public school district receives for teacher salaries in Washington state. The number ranges from 1.0 to 1.88 and is used as a multiplier in our funding formula that determines how much money each school district gets.
While the staff mix factor may sound harmless, the reality is that it creates an unequal playing field for districts. Instead of districts receiving funding for the students they serve, the staff mix factor generates a different amount of money based on the characteristics of the teachers in each district. A district with a higher staff mix will generate more money than a district with a lower staff mix, even if there are the same number of students.
But the disparities from district to district don’t stop there. First, the staff mix factor creates unequal levels of funding for critical programs like the Learning Assistance Program, the Transitional Bilingual Instructional Program, the Highly Capable program, and Special Education programs. Second, the use of staff mix factor also puts districts with low staff mix at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring teachers. This is because districts that serve large low-income student populations and English Language Learner populations typically have lower staff mix, which means districts that serve students with greater needs actually have less money to hire more experienced teachers than other districts.
Part of the reason the staff-mix factor persists is a general sense of confusion about what eliminating it would and would not affect. The biggest myth? That eliminating the staff mix factor would also eliminate the state salary schedule. Not so. Currently, districts are not even required to use the state salary schedule.
Another unsupported concern is that ending the staff mix factor would drive districts to hire the least expensive, least experienced teachers. This scenario already plays out in districts with low staff mix that serve high need student populations and perpetuates inequities in our system. By moving to a state average salary allocation—one that is sufficient to fully cover the cost of salaries—the state would guarantee that no district is in a situation where they must choose between hiring a teacher with the skills they need and a teacher they can afford.
The truth is, the staff mix factor is confusing, but that doesn’t mean it’s too confusing to fix. That’s why our organizations united earlier this year with more than 30 other advocates for kids, families, low-income communities, racial equity and more to propose a host of policy solutions to the McCleary problem that could change our education system and move Washington from being ranked 41st in the nation for graduation, to being one of the best. Elimination the staff mix factor is the key, and concerns remain unfounded. It won’t create a feared “Wild Wild West” scenario with every district for itself and no salary schedule or stability. Instead, it will change the current system where, incredulously, funding isn’t based on student need but is based on adults, creating unequal and inequitable outcomes for students.
By removing structures like the staff mix factor, legislators have the opportunity to put a stop to this and create a system that allows for all of Washington’s students to have equal access to a great education.
We cannot continue to live in a state that perpetuates this kind of inequity for our kids. Our legislators know this and we are encouraged to see them stepping up and being the heroes that our families need and our kids deserve. By removing and replacing structures like the staff mix factor, we collectively have the power to ensure that communities of color and communities experiencing poverty are no longer left behind, as they have been year after year. Washington’s kids deserve to have their needs put, and funded, first. It’s time for real, sustainable change that will make an impact for every Washington student.
Contributors to this piece are: Chris Korsmo, League of Education Voters; Libuse Binder, Stand for Children Washington; Tony Lee, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition and Marcy Bowers, Statewide Poverty Action Network