When will we “fully fund” education?

Strategic investments – not just more money – are key for business growth and workforce development

Sen Brad Hawkins.

As we begin another school year, I often get asked about “fully funding” education, despite the record state funding provided over recent years. Education spending has significantly increased since the State Supreme Court’s landmark 2012 McCleary decision on school funding. Washington now invests 44 percent of its nearly $70 billion state budget into K-12 education. When the Legislature later satisfied the McCleary case, it also successfully limited school district property tax levies, but those limits were later removed.

As state funding and property taxes further increase, people continue to debate school funding. The answer to the “full funding” question actually requires a longer explanation about what constitutes “education” and an acknowledgement of expanding school district services. As state and local taxpayers continue to invest more into our schools, the business community should expect better returns on those investments and a more capable workforce.

Schools receive local, state, and federal dollars

Our state’s school funding system was already quite complicated prior to McCleary and still remains difficult to understand. Generally speaking, school districts receive state funding based on their total student enrollment. In addition to state dollars, school districts also receive funding from local and federal sources. Beyond their local, state, and federal funding, school districts can apply for various grants to supplement traditional sources of funds.

School district levies continue to increase

Local funding to school districts is provided by voter-approved property tax levies. While I am a strong supporter of education, I am concerned about the growing property tax burdens on residents and whether school districts can or should provide the expanded services many districts are now taking on. As a result of changing state policies, increased public expectations, and school board decisions, many districts are now providing a range of childcare, social services, meals, healthcare, and early learning services in addition to their K-12 academic responsibilities. There is no doubt that a variety of needs exist within communities and their schools but defining the role of schools – and determining who can provide support services most efficiently – are key questions.

Expanded services and increasing costs

With school district services greatly expanding, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate where school responsibilities end and where family and community responsibilities begin. School district scope of service changes also generate philosophical debates related to education policy, funding obligations, and parental rights. If school districts continue to expand their services, it will become increasingly difficult – if not impossible – to ever “fully fund” education. It is not operationally realistic or fiscally sustainable to transition all of society’s responsibilities into our school system.

Education funding in 2023-2025 budget

As with any budget or major legislation, there are always things to support and areas for improvement. With an operating budget that has now grown to nearly $70 billion with 44 percent dedicated to K-12 education, this is the case with Washington’s education spending. During the 2023 legislative session, approximately $3 billion was added to education funding beyond the baseline level. Two major bills were approved that constituted the bulk of this additional investment: House Bill 1436 (special education funding) and Senate Bill 5650 (salary inflationary increases). While these funding changes are certainly needed and appreciated, the approved state budget spends significantly more on K-12 education without making substantive improvements to address academic deficiencies.

COVID “learning loss” still an issue

Many students are struggling to return to grade level following the COVID pandemic. Junior high teachers I met with recently shared that many students are two-to-four years behind grade level in math, leaving teachers wishing they had elementary math curriculum. For me, getting students to grade level should be the state’s top priority. Students at grade level who previously exceeded their grade level should also continue to be challenged. Without making academics the top priority, the state will just continue to spend more and more money without improving the overall system.

As a former school board member and supporter of public education, I believe many challenges still exist in our education system. These challenges remain despite significant funding increases, many of which are being directed at broader student needs. To maximize learning opportunities, restore academic growth in our schools, and prepare students to succeed in a global workforce, lawmakers need to have thoughtful conversations about making improvements in education beyond just more spending. The expanding scope of services school districts are attempting to provide and increased property tax pressures must be part of that discussion.

Sen. Brad Hawkins is State Senator of the 12th Legislative District. He serves the ranking Republican member on the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. Prior to his election to the Legislature, Hawkins served for a combined 10 years on the North Central Educational Service District and Eastmont School boards.

School funding has significantly increased in recent years, both from state investments and school district property tax requests. Districts received $8,742 per student for the 2012-13 school year and received approximately $15,462 for the 2022-23 school year.



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