Feb 6, 2024
Despite significant increases in school spending in Washington, student learning, wellbeing, and equity have steadily declined.
At $17 billion a year, our public education system accounts for 43% of our state’s budget, and is our largest shared financial undertaking.
At $17,199 per student, Washington ranks 13th nationally in education spending per pupil but recently fell to the middle of the pack in students’ ability to read and do math, and to the lowest quarter of states for youth mental health.
The disconnect between spending decisions and impactful outcomes is evident, with the current state schools chief admitting to not knowing which investments have the most significant impact.
The increase in spending has not been effectively linked to the areas that directly influence student success, highlighting a systemic issue in prioritizing investments in evidence-based, high-impact solutions.
Washington has a regressive funding formula that has been associated with a significantly increased achievement gap over the past 8 years.
While the formula attempts to provide the same amount of funds per student across districts, the Seattle Times reports that districts with more low-income students receive 10% less funding.
Unfortunately, new funds – from McCleary’s insistence on adequate funding, which added ~$1B a year, to COVID’s $3B relief funding – have exacerbated gaps, and WA rates a X for funding fairness. This funding approach fails to address the unique challenges faced by schools in high-poverty areas, such as the need for more social workers or specialized programs.
Further, the state has not taken responsibility for crumbling infrastructure in poorer districts, where local levies have been voted down by voters, leading to leaky roofs and flooding bathrooms (1).
Multiple audits have revealed flaws in the current leadership’s utilization of pandemic aid funding, highlighting a lack of transparency and accountability.
The U.S. Department of Education audit found inadequate processes to ensure proper use of over $3B in ESSER funds, making WA one of only two states cited for misuse of the funding.
The public's faith in our school system's financial management is waning, as evidenced by voters rejecting 10X as many levy dollars as they approved last year, a trend unheard of in recent years (2).
We need to establish more transparent reporting mechanisms – 74% of ESSER funds were categorized as “other” (3), and deliver better progress with public dollars to restore greater trust in school funding decisions, if we’re to build the will needed for significantly greater future investment.
There are several proven strategies we can deploy to address issues in inadequate and ill-informed investment strategies:
We can increase funding for targeted support programs like the Learning Assistance Program (LAP) and Local Effort Assistance (LEA), focusing on high-poverty schools.
We can implement a weighted funding system to allocate resources based on student needs, ensuring high-poverty districts receive adequate support.
We can advocate for increased funding for capital projects to improve school infrastructure, positively impacting learning outcomes, especially in historically underserved districts.
We can strengthen the link between funding decisions and educational outcomes (for example by making regular use of Washington’s Institute for Public Policy impact analysis, and by building capacity for OSPI to help districts by offering well-vetted options and locally-developed playbooks.
Interested in learning more? Our policy research team put together an amazing report with an even deeper dive. Email me and I'll send it to you!