The Washington Supreme Court made good on its promise to hold the Washington State Legislature accountable for its failure to fully fund public education.
In 2014, the Washington Supreme Court ordered that the legislature complete a plan for full basic education. And then in September 2014, the court found the state in contempt for failing to comply with its order.
The court recently enacted a $100,000 per day fine that is to be paid by the legislature into an account to fund education until lawmakers meet the constitutional requirement to provide every child with a basic education. The fines will total more than $14 million by January, which is when the legislature is next scheduled to be in session.
Much of the problem comes down to how teachers are paid. Districts are backfilling their teacher salaries with local levies, creating an imbalance between wealthy school districts and poorer school districts. The court order asks that the legislature fully fund education equitably.
A number of advocates say, however, that the state shouldn’t lose sight of what major budget decisions mean for the poorest students in Washington. While the state haggles over how to find the billions of dollars needed to fund education, advocates want lawmakers to preserve social services and educational programs to those who are most likely to suffer: homeless, low-income and foster children in public schools.
For many students, their academic achievement relies on much more than an adequately funded school district. It requires housing, food and other social supports.
“If you cut, you are actively impeding their constitutional rights to education because there is a direct link between housing and social services and educational outcomes,” said Casey Trupin, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services, which advocates for homeless students, among other issues.
The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, the Children’s Alliance and Columbia Legal Services filed an amicus brief in the McCleary case in August 2014 arguing that education funding can’t come at the cost of services.
“Students living in low-income households and students of color already suffer disproportionately poor academic outcomes because of economic and food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, health issues, limited family assets, and other barriers,” the brief states. “Freezing funding for these programs, or eliminating them entirely would have a devastating effect on the already-fragile educational opportunity of this population, harm that would not be undone by increasing education funding.”
Although the legislature added funding to education in the 2015 session, it was not enough. On Aug. 13, the court levied the daily $100,000 fines.
The funding is ultimately a small amount, relative to the state’s overall budget.
“The fine itself is somewhat meaningless,” said Frank Ordway, director of government relations at the League of Education Voters. “That money was going to get spent on education anyway.”
But education and social services advocates say that funding to support low-income students, homeless families and foster children has suffered for a long time already. They worry that in an effort to fund education, the lowest-income students will lose out.
“Until we have a rational approach to paying K-12 employees, dollars that are allocated for disadvantaged kids and services that support their families are at risk,” Ordway said.
The state is facing financial pressure from all sides. In each legislative session, advocates fight to preserve social services from being cut more than they already have been over the last decade. A number of pressures will mount on the budget process in the next session, said Michele Thomas, policy director at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
“There’s a lot of other potential pressures on this state,” in addition to the McCleary fines, Thomas said, including the cost of fighting wildfires. “You never like to hear about things that are significant changes to an operating budget that was just recently resolved with a lot of heartache and hard work.”
In the world of education, social services can make a big difference in academic achievement. Statewide, the number of homeless students is also on the rise. In 2007, Washington state estimated there were more than 18,000 homeless students. In 2014, the number grew to more than 30,000.
When students struggle, it’s likely because of the number of times they’ve had to move homes and classrooms. Research increasingly shows a link between academic achievement and stability. Much of it comes down to mobility, Hillary Madsen at Columbia Legal Services said. If a child is thinking about where to sleep at night or worrying about getting food, they can’t focus on education.
Madsen said that moving two to four times in a school year can set a student back an entire year.
“That’s what homeless students and foster students have in common, that high mobility,” she said. “Every time a kid moves [to] a [new] school, they’re losing that ability to acquire knowledge.”
According to Columbia Legal Services, almost half of students involved in the criminal justice system have moved three or more times.
The question of mobility has driven housing authorities around the Puget Sound to take on education as part of their work.
Tacoma Housing Authority and the Tacoma School District collaborated on a pilot project at McCarver Elementary School that provided 50 homeless families with both housing and educational supports to see if they could succeed.
McCarver had a high-mobility rate that plummeted after the housing program began. Programs like McCarver’s are necessary to student achievement, said Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra.
“The state is about to invest an enormous amount of additional dollars into the public school system. In doing so, it should rightly expect a return on investment, especially for low-income children,” he said. “It should not expect that return unless it does something about those aspects of child poverty that have a ruinous effect on school outcome.”
Gov. Jay Inslee has committed to solving the education funding problem without hurting social services, said David Postman, spokesperson for the governor’s office.
“To say that we’re going to put more money in the classroom, but not make sure that they’re housed, fed, healthy? It’s self-defeating,” Postman said.
Many agree that there’s only one way to fund education without cutting other programs: revenue.
“As long as that question [revenue] remains unanswered, the budget choices that get made will fall on the backs of the kids and families, and most on low-income kids and kids of color,” said Paola Maranan, executive director of the Children’s Alliance.