The recent news that elevated lead levels have now been found in five North Thurston schools is a stark reminder of the problems caused by the Legislature’s failure to comply with the Constitution and the court order in the McCleary case to fully fund our schools. From crumbling buildings to the ongoing teacher shortage — to name just a few of the many problems — the lack of funding hurts every child in our state.
We can also see that the state’s failure to properly fund our schools is felt even more strongly by children from disadvantaged families and communities, particularly people of color. Some of these disparities exist within school districts. In Seattle, for example, the school district is unable to provide any funds for libraries. Parents in more prosperous neighborhoods are able to step in and raise money for school library collections. But parents in less prosperous neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods where a majority of residents are people of color, are not.
These problems exist because Washington’s method of funding schools is unconstitutional — and inequitable. It is a system that prioritizes keeping taxes low on billionaires and on large corporations while leaving communities and families to fend for themselves. Poorer communities and people of color often do not have the resources needed to make up for the lack of sufficient funding from the state. We cannot have equity in schools without equity in the way we generate the revenue to fund our schools.
If we are to fulfill the state constitution’s guarantee that the state will provide for the education of all children within its borders, all schools will need more funding than they currently have. Some will need a lot more.
We believe that as the Legislature finally acts to increase the amount of funding given to all schools in 2017, it should build upon existing legislation defining basic education (ESSB 2261) and ensure schools with greater needs get an even larger increase in funding. This can and should be done without reinforcing the state’s already problematic emphasis on high stakes testing. In particular, schools with many students of color and students from different cultural backgrounds will need an additional amount of money. The level of increase should not be a one-size-fits-all amount.
Fully funding our schools is no magic bullet. But without it, we cannot solve existing inequities and ensure all children get a good education. The smaller class sizes, wraparound services, culturally appropriate curricula, diverse and enriching programs, and recruiting qualified and committed teachers - especially teachers of color - that can help end those inequities are not free.
For decades, the Legislature has sought to reform the way our children are taught, without providing them or their schools with sufficient funding to make those reforms work. And we wonder why there are still unequal outcomes in our schools.
We must take care to ensure that our education funding solutions do not reinforce existing inequities. That means we cannot fund our schools at the expense of other important priorities such as social and mental health services, early or higher education, or health care programs. Nor can we look to levy swap proposals that deliver a massive property tax increase to poor neighborhoods on the I-5 corridor. That would merely exacerbate existing inequities while doing nothing to address the larger problem.
The fact is that Washington state’s schools need billions more each year in additional funding. We must generate that revenue in an equitable and sustainable way. We must also ensure that while the amount each student and school receives is increased, that the increase is larger in schools where inequities persist.
Dawn Bennett, Washington’s Paramount Duty board member, Multicultural Education Rights Alliance co-founder and African American Leadership Forum board chair. Heather Moore, Washington’s Paramount Duty campaign manager lives in Olympia and has a child in the Olympia School District.