State school funding is failing Grays Harbor’s kids

Rural school districts across the state, and pretty much every student in Grays Harbor County, were sent to the back of the line by lawmakers in the ongoing fallout of the McCleary Supreme Court decision and legislative school funding debacle.

Levy changes

Grays Harbor students lost out when the state changed the formula by which local school levies are set.

Total levy amounts used be set using a percentage of total state and federal funds from the previous year.

The total levy funds a district can collect is now based on property values. Property-poor regions pay the price. Montesano, for example, lost $874,571 in levy funding this school year, 25 percent of last year’s $3.4 million. Elma will lose $2 million over its biennial funding period.

Aberdeen is expecting a $3.5 million budget shortfall next year.

Mix factor funding

Grays Harbor students also lost out when lawmakers stopped paying districts more for more-experienced, better-educated teachers, or “staff-mix factor.” After McCleary, that distinction vanished.

Districts in King and Pierce counties benefited greatly from this change because they have the highest percentage of teachers with less than five years of experience. The rest of Western Washington suffered from this change because they have a higher percentage of teachers with five or more years of experience.

A legislative fix for this imbalance, such as regional cost factor funding, is yet to be found.

Special education

Most Grays Harbor students lost out when lawmakers didn’t fully fund basic education for students with special needs.

The percentage of students with special needs in the Aberdeen (15.8%), Elma (16.6%) and Hoquiam (15.2%) districts exceeds what the state will pay, a maximum of 13.5%. Montesano receives a full match to pay for its 12.3 percent of the student body that have special needs.

Districts with higher percentages of students with special needs have to make up the difference or cut services

“When I met with school districts in South King County,” state Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) said, “they told me that 15 to 20 percent of their funding goes to special education to help better serve students and families.”

Further, the generic treatment of children all requiring the same amount of support is ridiculous. Some students with special needs require much more intensive, expensive support just to reach a basic level of education all students should receive.

“Under McCleary, we sued around the state not fully funding basic education. And special education is basic education,” said Calvin Brodie, the chief fiscal officer for Education Services District 113, which includes Grays Harbor County. “And (the lawmakers) didn’t address it well.”

Other factors

There are myriad factors to education funding. And sometimes the Legislature seems to get in its own way.

For instance, Grays Harbor students lost out with yet another unfunded mandate: requiring districts pay for increased health care for part-time staff.

State-funded education is very difficult. And everybody agrees that getting state-funded education right is imperative.

But the longer it takes, the more generations of students, like those now attending Grays Harbor schools, get left behind.