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State targets teacher-student ratios as key to equitable funding

Things are looking bleak for education funding in Washington, but the state has a plan of action.

Cost is growing faster than revenue, and levy returns don’t grow fast enough. Statewide, school budgets have increased $38 million this year. Utilities alone went up about $11 million, almost a third of the total increase.

This is according to an Oct. 24 presentation in Issaquah by Jennifer Priddy, assistant superintendent of K-12 Fiscal Services and Policy, titled “K-12 Finance: Depth, Breadth and Causes of a Looming Finance Crisis.”

One problem is that in the early 1990s, thanks to a good economy, the state’s teacher pension fund was overfunded due to its stocks doing well. The past few years, the state required less money for that pension fund. Now that the market has faltered, the state must raise the pension rates to pay for them.

School districts are having to use more of their end balance, which is the money left over after all transactions have been made, Priddy said.

“Twenty percent of students are in a district with very little ending fund balance,” Priddy said.

In her two decades in education, Priddy said she has never had more than two districts at once in binding conditions, where the state has to step in and watch the budget of a school. This year, there are about half a dozen already, with another half dozen on the watch list; Federal Way is not on the list.

The problem is that the state has not updated the definition of basic education in 30 years, Priddy said. As a result, areas that should be funded do not fall under the definition of basic education and therefore aren’t funded. Districts have to pick up all the slack.

“The state funds either light or heat, but not both,” Priddy joked.

Rising costs in basics have also hit the state education program hard.

“For every one cent that goes up in gas, the state pays $100,000 more,” Priddy said. “That’s the equivalent of one and a half teachers.”

Teacher-student ratios

Despite all the glum talk, the state is working on a solution for making education funding more equitable.

An education task force is working on a bill proposal, and so is the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

The OSPI proposal focuses working the budget around staff-to-student ratios.

The current ratio funds one staff member for every 18.8 students in kindergarten through fourth grade, and one staff member for every 21.7 students in grades five to 12. However, this isn’t the actual class ratio. This ratio includes teachers, but also instructional coaches, nurses, counselors, librarians and all other support.

That means in most cases, the class sizes and class ratio of teachers-to-students are much larger.

For grades K-5, the current ratio of teachers to students is one for every 24.7; for grades 6-12, it’s one to 29. There is one instructional coach for every 1,250 students, one librarian for every 786 students, one counselor for every 462 students and one nurse for every 2,659 students.

OSPI is proposing to work the funding around creating smaller classes, moving the overall ratio down to one staff member for every 15.89 students in K-5, and one staff member for every 18.43 students for grades 6-12. This would result in class sizes of 21.2 for K-5, and 25.5 for 6-12.

Instuctional coaches would be one for every 1,000 students; librarians as one for every 500; guidance counselors as one for every 403; and nurses as one for every 750.

The state also underfunds classified staff, causing districts to spend millions to make up the difference. OSPI recommends that the state pay for more of the classified staff. OSPI is also recommending that the state equalize pay between districts. Also the state needs to adopt a new salary schedule with higher lifetime earnings and increases for certification-based demonstration of excellence.

OSPI recommends that the state define basic education as $1,101 per student rather than the current $468. This amount would fully fund operating costs that are related to education and includes $126 per student for curriculum to be adopted every six years. Some schools can’t afford new curriculum and are stuck in the last century.

OSPI would also like the improve special education and learning assistance by reducing class sizes in high-poverty districts, hire teachers for small group tutoring, add programs for administrative support and buy more instructional material.

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For State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson’s full proposal, visit www.k12.wa.us/communications/basicEdFundingTaskForce.aspx.

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