Understand the consequences of underfunded K-12 students

Rep. Ross Hunter’s blog on WA Ed Funding

Funding Washington Schools

Archive of Ed Funding Blog Topics by Rep. Ross Hunter, House Ways & Means Chair 2011-2012

This page duplicates (with permission) whole excerpts from Rep. Hunter’s personal blog that pertain to his perspective on legislative activity around K-12 education funding in Washington State; he started the blog in December 2008.

About R.H.: Proud to represent 48th Legislative District in the Washington State House of Representatives: Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, Medina, Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, Yarrow Point and a bit of Issaquah; serves as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, responsible for tax policy and crafting biennial budgets.

Olympia Office: John L. O’Brien Building, Capitol Campus, Olympia, WA 98504; Phone: (360) 786-7936

Bellevue Office: 16011 – 116th Ave NE Suite 206, Bellevue, WA 98009

                             Phone: (425) 453-3064   Email: hunter.ross@leg.wa.gov    Website: www.rosshunter.info


School Funding Reform

Posted on January 8, 2012 by Ross

I’ve created a new page on my website, not just a blog post, that provides background and current documents on my local levy shift proposal. If you click on Reforming School Funding in Washington in the title bar above you’ll see the page




Washington ranks 30th in total school spending per pupil in 2011

Posted on May 23, 2013 by Ross

Per-Pupil expenditures 1992-2011 not adjusted for inflation

Per-Pupil expenditures 1992-2011 not adjusted for inflation


Dick Davis at the The Washington Research Council posted about new Census data recently released on school funding.

Washington ranks 30th in total school spending per pupil in 2011

A new report from the U.S. Census provides a wealth of data on public school spending. (Links to all the data can be found here.)

A look at state revenues and spending per pupil can be found in this spreadsheet, Table 11 from the report. It shows that Washington spent $9,483 per pupil, ranking the state 30th, slightly below the U.S. average of $10,560.The table also shows that Washington ranks 30th in total revenues per pupil, $11,329. And, as we noted in our comparative analysis of education funding, we rank relatively high in state spending, No. 15, and lower in local funding, No. 36. (Read entire article here...)

The census data is the raw data on school funding. Typically it’s more interesting to look at some nuanced analysis. For example, the costs of hiring professional staff (teachers) varies by state, with highly urban states having higher costs not just for teachers, but for all college-educated workers, so the same dollar buys less education. This kind of analysis will come in over time.

Dick makes a couple of interesting points that are worth thinking (and talking) about:

Washington ranks high in state spending and low in local spending compared to other states.

Many states are dealing with increasing costs of paying off underfunded pension systems.

Washington ranks high in state support because our constitution requires us to do so. The Supreme Court pointed this out quite painfully in the McCleary decision. Depending on local resources for basic education makes it difficult for taxpayers in low-property value areas of the state to give their children a comparable education to those in more affluent areas, a problem that plagues states that mostly depend on local revenue.

Dick is correct to be concerned about the rising costs of paying for unfunded retirement system liabilities. Washington is also in good shape here compared to many states, but these costs are increasing as we pay for decisions made in the 1970s. It’s important to recognize that these costs are real and must be paid, but that they do not increase educational outcomes for children today. (Essentially we’re paying for educational costs incurred 20-30-40 years ago that should have been paid then but were not.) Ensuring that we adequately fund BOTH the actual educational needs of our children and the constitutionally required costs of paying for decisions made 40 years ago is the task in front of the Legislature today.


Education Bills and Background

Posted on March 10, 2013 by Ross


Lots has been happening on the education front this year, though the most important thing is happening in closed rooms as the House and Senate work out their budget proposals. I sat on a school funding panel in front of the Washington State School Directors Association today with Sen. Bruce Dammeier (R- Puyallup), Rep. JT Wilcox (R-Yelm), and Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane.)

All of us were willing to make substantial investments in K12 education funding, though we all had weird conditions and our numbers were all over the map, ranging from $900 million for the House Republicans to $1.4 billion from me, the amount specified by the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Funding this summer. I take this as a hopeful sign – they’ve all figured out that we have to invest in a quality system in order to get the results that we want.

Both Republicans wanted to ensure that there were “changes” to the education system that would make it more effective before they invested the money. I agree that there should be changes, but we should have some humility about our ability to change the system rapidly. There are 1 million children in our K12 system, and about 100,000 adults. This is not a ship that changes direction on a dime. There are a handful of long-term changes we’re engaged in that you will see bills about this year:

Graduation Requirements: We are in the process of upgrading our graduation requirements to something that looks more like Bellevue or Lake Washington’s than like the rest of the state. We’ll require 24 credits, not the 20 required now. Most students will take a course of study that will prepare them for education after high school, either college, community college, or some technical alternative that gets them a credential. Without this preparation it will be very difficult for our young people to make a living, and consequently to move out of our basements, something greatly to be desired. To read about this you can look at the State School Board’s document on it.

It’s important to not change these all the time or families can’t keep track of it, but we are working on phasing in stronger requirements. I unequivocally support this effort.

Testing: We are moving away from writing Washington-specific tests. Two national consortia have developed coordinated sets of tests based around the “Common Core” standards. Led by the National Governor’s Association the states got together and developed these standards. Washington signed on several years ago. We have adopted a set of tests from the “Smarter Balanced” group, one of two groups developing tests for this set of knowledge. Most first-world countries have a national curriculum, and this is a pretty reasonable attempt at it. There is lots of grumbling that we should have state-specific standards, as if algebra is different in Wisconsin than it is in Washington.

Being part of a consortia saves us tons of money (I’m expecting to save about $35 million on test development alone) and builds better tests that get affected less by individual strong personalities and fads sweeping through the education world. We have not worked out exactly what the changes will be, but you should expect to see less time spent testing, and tests that are more aligned with what college requirements are.

The tests will be delivered on computers, allowing faster scoring and tests that adjust to the level of the student. We’ll have work to do to ensure that each district has enough computers to do this, but I don’t expect this to be a big problem.

Teacher and Principal Evaluations: Washington has adopted a program to provide much stronger teacher and principal evaluations that are partly dependent on student learning data. We’re in the first few years of implementing this and should stay the course. There is some blow-back, as you might expect. (Seattle teachers are not administering a pretty routine test solely because (IMHO) it is a component of their evaluations.) We can’t depend totally on student learning data or everyone would want to teach in Medina and nobody in Yakima – that’s why it’s important to look at student growth instead of absolute values. This requires some subtle statistical work, and is one of the reasons we don’t turn teachers into salespeople on commission – the student learning data should be part of the eval, but not all.

There will be lots of push to change this system, but we should let it go through the adoption phase without screwing with it too much. It takes a long time to change the direction of large ships, and this is a really big one. It will require some money to train principals and teachers on how to work with the new system.

Bills in the System

The Senate passed out a block of education bills last week, and the House did about half their bills on Friday. Short list, cribbed liberally from the analysis of Stand for Children, the League of Education Voters, the Washington State PTA, and our internal staff.

SB 5243 - Academic Acceleration, automatically enrolls every student who is qualified into more rigorous advanced classes. The House passed a weaker version. There’s lots of data that shows that students who are in challenging courses do better afterwards, even if they don’t get a passing grade on the AP exam. Kids that get college credit via running start, AP, IB or other rigorous systems do better in college, and save money for themselves and for the state. This can be critical for a middle-class family, and we want to encourage it as much as possible.

SB 5491 - State Education Goals, establishes statewide goals for students at key milestones, such as 4th grade reading, 8th grade math, and high school graduation. This is boring, but having some agreed-upon goals can really help folks get focused on what really matters.

SB 5329Transforming Persistently Failing Schools, allows the State Superintendent (OSPI) to bring in new leadership, innovation and resources to help persistently struggling schools improve. This is a very controversial bill that creates a requirement that the bottom ten lowest performing schools in the state must be actually changed or something will happen. The process is tortuous, but we don’t really want the state taking over very many schools as we are unlikely to be able to do it at scale. I would tend to agree that at some point if a school remains in the bottom ten state-wide for many years that something needs to be done. This seems like a reasonable process, but it still needs some work.

SB 5237 - 3rd Grade Reading, provides early intervention and support to make sure every student is reading at grade level. Originally this required that 3rd graders who couldn’t read be held back. The new bill has a lot of funding for intervention – required summer school, extra help during the school year, etc. It’s critical that kids learn how to read proficiently in the 3rd or 4th grade. They tend to fall behind catastrophically if they do not. Again, this will be a contentious bill.

SB 5242 - Mutual Consent, ends forced placements by requiring a teacher and a principal to agree before a teacher is assigned to work in a specific school. Again – very controversial. Teachers who aren’t hired go into a temporary position for a year, then can be let go. I do not yet have an opinion on the details of this bill, and the devil will be in the details.

SB 5328Letter Grades for Schools, provides parents with clear information by assigning schools a letter grade A-F for their performance based on the state Achievement Index. I’m not sure about the value of this, but allows parents to have a simpler way to evaluate how well their local school is doing. The key is getting the achievement index right – you don’t want to penalize schools that have a lot of at-risk students show up in the first years, but do great work with them, and conversely, you don’t want to reward schools with lots of well-prepared kids who do nothing to advance them.

SB 5244 - Student Suspensions, limits the length of time a student can be suspended from school and improves data collection on school discipline. There is a growing body of research that says that kids who are expelled don’t do well. This makes sense – they aren’t in school learning.

SB 5587 - State Assessments, establishes a transition schedule to move from existing state exams to the new Common Core college- and career-ready exams as graduation requirements for the class of 2018. The House bill is stuck in committee for reasons I don’t understand.

HB 1723 – Early Start, Helps build an integrated early learning system, including preschool, child care, and services for at-risk infants. Details of the system would be left up to a taskforce with the overall goal of building a comprehensive system for children zero to 5 years old.

HB 1671 – Child Care. Improves the child care system for low-income children and increases the quality of child care these children receive by improving the Working Connections Child Care program, a program that provides child care to low-income parents who are working or in school.

HB 1872Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Gov. Inslee request bill improving outcomes for STEM. My guess is that this bill will have a lot of changes before we are done.

HB 1692Career and College Ready Graduation Requirements. Rep. Pat Sullivan’s bill to implement the supports necessary for the career and college-ready graduation requirements I referenced above. This is profoundly expensive, adding additional instructional time called for in the bill the McCleary decision calls out as the framework for our constitutional requirements for funding.

HB 1680 – Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap. A collection of policies recommended by the educational opportunity gap oversight and accountability committee. This bill points out a fundamental discussion point in how we look at K12 funding. Do we fund specific programs that worked in one district statewide, or do we drive funding out to districts based on an allocation formula and make sure that they have opportunities available to them to select evidence-based programs that will work in their community? As you can tell from the language, I’m in the latter camp. What will work in Yakima may or may not work in Bellevue or Redmond.

HB 1424 – Dropout prevention and Retention. Similar to 1680, this lays out a set of programs that have worked and tries to create funding streams for them. I’m not a fan of all these little funding streams – I think we do better by providing funds to districts and letting them pick the programs that will work.

HB 1177 Accountability. This bill sets up a financial scenario that allows state funding to be used to assist schools that are not meeting their student learning goals, much as SB 5329 does, but it does not provide the intervention strategies needed to transform the schools.

The process of coordinating and reducing the number of bills is likely to take us a while this year. These bills all go through multiple steps and often change substantially before they are finally released. I would expect that we will create additional policy around assessments, around intervention in failing schools, and around early learning, the most powerful investment we can make.


What’s the “McCleary Problem?”

Posted on January 21, 2013 by Ross

In 2012 the Washington State Supreme Court found that Washington State was not funding our education system at anything close to the level the constitution requires. Just before the holidays the court opined again, that

“the overall level of funding remains below the levels that have been declared constitutionally inadequate.” (Washington State Supreme Court, 2012)

On the Legislative side the Joint Task Force on Education Finance report issued in December 2012 detailed an eventual cost of about $4.5 billion dollars per biennium in additional funding needed to meet the court’s definition of “constitutionally adequate.” Arguments that the court isn’t talking about funding are belied by the quote above.

Despite protestations to the contrary, this session the Legislature needs to make steady progress towards completely meeting the court’s requirement by 2018. There are 5 school years between now and 2018, and “steady progress” means we get about 2/5ths of the way to the complete solution, or about $1.7 billion.

I personally do not believe that just adding additional money to the system will resolve all the problems we face, particularly with respect to the achievement gap faced by many low-income students. The funds are necessary, but probably not sufficient to improve matters significantly. The same can be said about the proposed accountability changes. I believe we can do both, and have significant results. There will be much negotiation this year to come to a resolution.


What’s in “McCleary?”

Posted on January 15, 2013 by Ross

In 2012 the Washington State Supreme Court found that Washington State is not funding our education system at anything close to the level the constitution requires. Just before the holidays the court opined again, that

“the overall level of funding remains below the levels that have been declared constitutionally inadequate.” (Washington State Supreme Court, 2012)

On the Legislative side the Joint Task Force on Education Finance report issued in December 2012 detailed an eventual cost of about $4.5 billion dollars per biennium in additional funding needed to meet the court’s definition of “constitutionally adequate.” Arguments that the court isn’t talking about funding are belied by the quote above.

Despite protestations to the contrary, this session the Legislature needs to make steady progress towards completely meeting the court’s requirement by 2018. There are 5 school years between now and 2018, and “steady progress” means we get about 2/5ths of the way to the complete solution, or about $1.7 billion.

The Legislature clarified the definition of “basic education” in a seminal bill in 2009. (HB 2261) That same year HB 2276 laid out an implementation schedule for some of the parts of 2261 that were clearly understood. The Supreme Court called out the two bills above as a good outline. To understand our obligations under this decision it’s useful to break the bills apart a little.

First, districts are currently paying for many services that are part of the legal definition of “basic education,” and that consequently the state should be paying for. Some examples:

Transportation of students who live outside a 1-mile radius of the school.

Materials, supplies and other operating costs. (MSOC) We’ve done study after study on this and have a good handle on how much it is – this is stuff like textbooks, heat for the building, copier paper, etc.

Second, improved instruction for very young children was called out in HB 2776 and very few districts are funding it today.

All-day kindergarten. Many districts provide this for tuition, but charging tuition means that low-income kids who need it most can’t afford it.

Reduced class size (to 17 per class) in kindergarten through third grade.

Third, HB 2261 called for more rigorous graduation requirements and more instructional time to allow kids to achieve them. The Legislature has not adopted a schedule for paying for these yet, but they are clearly called for in HB 2261.

Increase in instructional time for middle and high school students to 1080 hours from the 1000 we require today. This is another two weeks of school time that could be accommodated in many ways, and was added to the definition of basic education to allow enough time for a 6-period day in middle and high schools.

Expanding the number of credits required to graduate from high school to 24 from the 20 we require today. This would include the distribution requirements the State Board of Education (SBE) is recommending, which bring our high school education system into the 21st century. (Washington State Board of Education, 2011)

Fourth, local taxpayers are paying salaries the state is supposed to be paying. (Quality Education Council Compensation Technical Working Group, 2012) The costs of employees in the model school definition are a state responsibility and the state should be covering reasonable costs for them. Forcing districts to pay for staff the state requires that they hire puts a burden on local taxpayers that’s unfair to districts without a substantial tax base of commercial property. It’s important to know that there is no proposal to increase salaries, just have the state pay instead of local taxpayers.

The table below is from the Final Report of the Joint Task Force on Education Funding. (Joint Task Force on Education Funding, 2012)

JTFEF Spending plan

There was some disagreement about the numbers in the report, with a minority proposal that left local taxpayers paying for state obligations for some compensation costs and that included only parts of the “Career and College Ready” item, but both reports agreed on the substantive core of the costs. The committee proposal here for 2013-15 is less than 2/5 of the eventual solution, but has a rational basis, which seems like a reasonable starting position.

The problem of the regional differences in teacher salaries remains unresolved and will require significant work in the 2013 Legislative session.

In conclusion, the total cost of funding our obligation to basic education will range from about $3.5 billion in the minority report to about $4.5 billion in the majority report. There are five school years remaining in the phase-in period, and consequently we should fund at least 2/5 of the increment in this two-year budget.


Works Cited

Joint Task Force on Education Funding. (2012, December 31). Joint Task Force on Education Funding Final Report. Retrieved from http://www.leg.wa.gov/JointCommittees/EFTF/Documents/JTFEF%20Final%20Report%20-%20combined%20(2).pdf

Quality Education Council Compensation Technical Working Group. (2012). Compensation Technical Working Group Final Report. Retrieved from http://www.k12.wa.us/Compensation/CompTechWorkGroupReport/CompTechWorkGroup.pdf

Taylor, D. L. (2012). But Are They Competitive in Seattle? An Analysis of Educator and Comparable Non-educator Salaries in the State of Washington. Retrieved from http://www.k12.wa.us/Compensation/pubdocs/CompetitiveSeattle.pdf

Washington State Board of Education. (2011, December 19). State Board of Education Career and College- Ready Graduation Requirements. Retrieved from http://www.sbe.wa.gov/documents/2011.01.01%20Framework%20Details%20Document%20as%20Adopted%20in%20November%202010.pdf

Washington State Legislature. (2009, May 19). Bill Information for HB 2261. Retrieved from http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=2261&year=2009

Washington State Legislature. (2009, May 19). Bill Information for HB 2776. Retrieved from http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=2776&year=2009

Washington State Supreme Court. (2012, January 5). Majority Supreme Court Opinion in Mathew & Stephanie McCleary et al. v. State of Washington. Retrieved from http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/843627.opn.pdf#xml=

Washington State Supreme Court. (2012, December 20). Supreme Court Order re: McCleary, et al. v. State with dissent by Justice J.M. Johnson. Retrieved from Washington State Supreme Court: http://www.courts.wa.gov/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20News/84362-7%20-%20McCleary,%20et%20al.%20v.%20State%2012-20-12%20order%20with%20dissent.pdf



Reforming School Funding in Washington

Posted on January 8, 2012 by Ross

30 years ago, Washington State’s system of financing education was ruled unconstitutional for the same set of conditions that have re-emerged and again exist today. The budget situation we face this year is likely to result in additional reductions that will exacerbate the problems in the system.

In the McCleary case two years ago Washington courts ruled that school funding was unconstitutionally inadequate. Since then the recession has resulted in even more reduced funding. On January 5th 2012 the Supreme Court upheld this decision in a landmark ruling.

The percent of the total funding for schools coming from local levies as is back up to near historic highs. This level of dependence on our current local tax system was found by the court to be unreliable and results in uneven distribution around the state.

The state’s contribution to K-12 education – due to the combined effects of initiatives and the mechanics of how our statewide property tax is collected – has also diminished over time. The original goal of setting aside $3.60 per $1,000 of property value is not even close to a reality.

The combined effects of these factors have led us to a funding system which is increasingly unstable and unreliable, and ultimately, unsustainable. This sets the stage for a replay of the types of devastating levy failures that crippled the system 30 years ago.

The legislature cannot add billions to the education budget in the worst economic downturn since the depression, but we can fix the structural elements of the system that will allow it to grow as we come out of the recession, and rebalance the dependence on local funding.

The basic idea is to do a revenue-neutral swap of state property tax for local levies, staying within the constitutional 1% limit for regular property taxes. This would make the statutory $3.60 per 1,000 set aside for public education a meaningful, rather than hollow, commitment, and bring $1 billion of existing local excess levies into a more regular and dependable tax structure – the statewide property tax.

Raise the state property tax from the current $2.03 per thousand dollars of property value to $3.20, raising about $1 billion in funding that is constitutionally dedicated to public school funding.

Distribute the new money to school districts using the normal school funding formulas, and simultaneously reduce each district’s local levy by the amount of new money they receive. This guarantees that each district will not be hurt financially by what is effectively a revenue neutral ‘swap’ of local for state tax collections in each school district.

Allow state property tax collections to grow as property values recover from the downturn, helping us deliver on our constitutional requirements.

Reset local levy lids in a simpler way, so that local communities better understand the relationship between their local levies and school programs and services. Set a simple per student levy lid that naturally adjusts for inflation and student growth in district.

With these changes we would no longer be as dependent on “levy equalization,” hundreds of millions that we use to correct for the fact that some districts don’t have the property base to collect similar amounts of levies. These districts will be better served by increased state funding and less reliance on levies. We will still need some LEA system, but smaller and with a more focused formula.

In addition, we should make local school levies more reliable, since they are likely to be a significant part of school funding well into the future. Instead of voting to renew levies every 4 years we should amend the constitution to allow voters to approve levies that would stay in place until the district asks voters to increase them.

Together these changes would result in a more stable system, a system that grows as we come out of the recession, and one that distributes funding more fairly across the state.

The following documents may be useful to people:

PowerPoint slideshow presenting the idea

Background and summary of the bill

Draft legislation

Data Table 1 – impact on districts

Data Table 2 – impact on taxpayers by district

For those who want to mess around with the data in Excel or another spreadsheet program the following links are to a CSV formatted file, and a Word document describing each of the columns and showing how it is calculated.

Combined tables in CSV form

Column Definitions


Washington State and local taxes drop to lowest level in 50 years

Posted on December 16, 2011 by Ross

The DOR released this as part of their “Revenue Update” for the month.

Washington’s state and local taxes (as a percent of personal income) dropped to their lowest level in 50 years in Fiscal Year 2009, according to new figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Description: http://www.rosshunter.info/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/State-and-local-revenue.jpgWashington taxes dropped to $93.24 per $1,000 personal income from $105.49 in Fiscal Year 2008. While many states experienced declines in taxes relative to personal income during that period, Washington’s decline was steep enough to change its national ranking to 35th highest among the states in 2009 from 30th highest in 2008. The national average for Fiscal Year 2009 was $102.10, down from $111.99 the prior year. The $93.24 figure, comprising $56.70 in state taxes and $36.54 in local taxes, is the lowest since the Department of Revenue began tracking this statistic in 1960, when the rate was the second lowest at $98.43. Taxes per capita also declined to $4,049 in 2009 from $4,354 in 2008, dropping Washington’s per capita ranking nationally to 21st lowest from 16th. The national average in 2009 was $4,141. More information on changes in rankings over the years and the factors involved is available in Comparative State and Local Taxes 2009, published online at http://dor.wa.gov/Content/AboutUs/StatisticsAndReports/2009/Compare09/default.aspx.


Post-Special Session Newsletter

Posted on December 15, 2011 by Ross

Now that the “special” session is over I’ve been motivated to write a newsletter that answers many of the questions I’ve received in email. If you want to print it click here for the PDF version that’s better formatted for your printer (or at least for mine.)

As always, it’s an honor and a privilege to serve you in the Legislature. This will be my tenth year, which I find astounding. I never intended to do this – I thought I’d swoop in and fix school funding, then go back to the private sector. It turns out that some problems are harder to fix than you would think. The “great recession” is also making it a little more difficult…

Gov. Gregoire called the Legislature into special session Nov. 28 to deal with a significant decline in our expected revenue over the remainder of the two-year budget period, which ends June 30, 2013. She released her proposed revised budget Nov. 21.

We finished the special session on December 14th with the passage of a “down payment” bill on the budget, along with a handful of bills that were related to the budget or to creating jobs in Washington. The down payment bill saved a little less than 25% of the overall problem: $480 million. We still have about $1.5 billion to go.

One of the purposes of a newsletter like this is to answer common questions from constituents, and from folks all across the state who write to me about their concerns. In the past two weeks, I’ve been inundated with emails about items in the budget. I answer many of them below. I apologize for not writing a personal response to every inquiry, but it is almost impossible to do so and still do my job.


The Budget Situation

We face a daunting set of decisions this year. Last spring, we adopted a bipartisan two-year budget that spent less than we expected to receive in revenue and that provided for $700 million in reserves. It was, according to most neutral observers, remarkably free of gimmicks. Since then, the revenue forecast for the state has declined by more than $1.6 billion, including a $122 million drop in November’s forecast. These declines are a result of economic forces from outside the state, but we have to deal with them – and with necessary reserves, that means closing a $2 billion gap.

To fix that hole in the budget, we will have to adopt spending cuts, revenue increases, or a combination of both that equal $2 billion. Due to Initiative 1053, approved by voters in 2010, any revenue increase (even closing a tax loophole) must win two-thirds approval in the Legislature or be ratified by voters statewide. Practically speaking, that means any revenue proposals will have to go to the ballot – and that means the Legislature will have to first close the gap entirely with cuts, then decide which cuts to ask the voters to restore with new revenues. We’re in the middle of this process.

While we have not made any decisions yet, we are spending a significant amount of time thinking about what is the appropriate mix of cuts and revenue. I support some revenue as part of the solution, as I am unexcited about large reductions in education and our social safety net.

We are looking at a number of options, including sales tax increases and closing loopholes in the tax code. I am not excited about sending proposals to the voters that are likely to fail, so we will be cautious about what we do.

As House budget chairman, I’ve been spending most of my time in Olympia for the past few months, working on a draft of a budget. The governor has to get only one vote to adopt her budget: her own. In the Legislature, we have to get 50 votes in the House and 25 in the Senate, and this is remarkably more difficult. Most of the first few weeks of the special session will be spent educating members about their choices and what the budget committee’s recommendations are. We’ll then make adjustments and negotiate with the Senate on their preferences.

I expect this to take a while. After all, we have the “worst form of government ever invented, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” (Winston Churchill) I’m a little comforted by another Churchill quote, this one on the American character: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” I expect this will be what happens on the budget.

In a discussion with House Democrats about proposed cuts, I presented a document that I thought might be interesting to others as well. There are six pages here and it’s a little wonky, but you begin to get a sense of the actual meaning behind some of the rather bland descriptions of the impacts of proposed cuts. The spreadsheet at the end is explained in one of my earlier blog posts about the budget, at www.rosshunter.info.

In the sections below, I’ve written about the various budget items that concern people enough for them to bury me in email suggesting that we fund them completely. We will make a very difficult set of decisions this year that will require a re-setting of budget expectations. I try to describe the particular issues involving several possible reductions, but cannot make any promises that any specific item will be funded.

Working out how we balance this budget will be difficult and is likely to try my patience. I look forward to your input as we work through it, and I hope you have new ideas that can help us find better solutions than what the governor has proposed.

“Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”(Winston Churchill) - I expect this will be what happens on the budget.


The governor proposes a reduction to K-12 education that I think is not only unwise, but unconstitutional: cutting the length of the school year by four days. A court case in the early ’80s made it pretty clear that once the Legislature defines what “basic education” is, we cannot reduce support for it for purely budgetary reasons.

Some of the governor’s other cuts are painful (and probably also unwise), but are potentially outside the constitutional definition of basic education. A fundamental issue of fairness is involved in the cut to levy equalization funds, which are payments to reduce the property tax burden in school districts with low property-tax bases that otherwise would have to set their school levy rates very high to raise enough money. But it will be hard to avoid that cut, given that it targets the only K-12 spending item of any size that is outside “basic education.”

I propose a substantive reform to the entire levy equalization system to deal with the fairness problem; you can read about it on my Web site. This proposal would eliminate the need for much of the levy equalization spending now in the budget.

The decisions we make in education (from pre-school to higher ed) will be strong indicators of how serious we are about moving forward as a state and investing in our long-term economic future. It is mathematically difficult to avoid reductions altogether in K-12, but we should at least fix the system so that it will work better as we grow our way out of this mess.

In higher education, the governor proposes reductions of $160 million — a 15% cut in state spending for higher ed, on top of reductions of 49% over the past few years. This moves us in the direction of a set of nominally public but de facto private universities and a weakly supported community college system. I don’t think this is a good direction, but I struggle with the budget realities that make similar levels of reduction almost inevitable.

If we imposed a $2 billion budget cut across the board — making reductions of the same percentage in all areas that aren’t protected either by the state constitution or federal law — then higher ed would be in line for a 30% cut, so the governor is at least moving in the right direction. But I am very concerned about what the governor’s proposed reduction would say to companies such as Boeing, which are considering substantial investments in the state and need a highly educated workforce.

What would likely happen if the governor’s proposal were adopted: UW and Western Washington University would increase tuition to cover the reduction and WSU would do that to some degree, but the other four-year schools would not realistically be able to do so. The community colleges would struggle because large fractions of what they do don’t involve tuition charges, so they can’t make up the reductions through increases. This doesn’t work for our economic future.

But protecting higher ed entirely means deeper cuts in other areas such as social services and health care, and proponents of those services are likely to push back against that.

Health Care and Human Services /Basic Health/Disability Lifeline

The state created the Basic Health program to allow working citizens affordable access to quality health care. The state subsidizes health care insurance premiums for low-income working families on a sliding scale, providing for tens of thousands of people who would otherwise be uncovered. The federal government (thanks to Senator Cantwell) recognized the value of what we do and has incorporated it into the new Affordable Care Act, passed last year in the other Washington but not yet fully in effect.

Disability Lifeline provides a way for adult citizens who typically are not eligible for Medicaid but who are temporarily disabled to get health care. It assists a variety of people, from young adults who break a leg and can’t work for a few months to others who have mental illnesses that block them from working. These are very poor people, and the program has time limits.

Gov. Gregoire has proposed that we eliminate both programs. This isn’t something anyone wants to do, but it is under consideration as we grapple with our huge budget deficit. We are trying to plan the transition to the world after the federal Affordable Care Act takes effect: The expenses for the Basic Health and Disability Lifeline populations will be covered 100% by the federal government as of Jan. 1, 2014. We’d like to keep the programs around to avoid major disruptions of service, but the cost factor is very challenging this year.

Critical Access Hospitals – HB 2031: The governor proposed a cut to “critical access hospitals,” which are certain small hospitals in rural areas. We heard her bill in committee and the reaction from those hospitals was that this would devastate them. There is another program that, when cut, affects largely Harborview and the UW hospital. Other hospital cuts in her budget are large as well. The system is bizarrely complex and we will sort through the different effects and try to come up with a rational solution.

Given the amount of money we spend on Medicaid, it will be hard to avoid reducing payments to hospitals. “Hard to avoid” means that we can’t spare them without making other, equally untenable cuts elsewhere in the budget. This is true for every single reduction I address in this newsletter.

Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening: As a cancer survivor myself I understand the importance of this item in the budget. We provide screenings for low-income individuals that in many cases significantly increase the patient’s ability to detect a cancer early, when it’s simpler (and cheaper) to treat. Had we not caught mine as early as we did I would not be writing this impossibly long email.

Family Planning: There are a number of ways the state provides funds for family planning in Washington. First, we provide family planning (contraception) to all women who are eligible to have the cost of their pregnancy and delivery paid for by Medicaid. About half the births in the state are currently covered by Medicaid. It turns out that this family planning program is much cheaper than paying for the deliveries would be, particularly if there were to be any complications at all.

Second, we make some grants to family planning clinics to provide services more broadly. Again, these interventions are relatively effective at reducing costs in the rest of the health care system.

The governor proposed a 10% reduction to the clinic grants this year, about $1.8 million. I do not know if we will be able to prevent this cut, but I will make every effort to do so.

Chemical Dependency Treatment: I’ve received many touching emails from recovering addicts who talked about how, without treatment, they would likely still be involved in destructive behaviors. The emails have talked about how people were able to re-unite with their children, get jobs and otherwise succeed in life in ways that were not possible before treatment — including staying out of jail,

Washington is blessed to have the nationally renowned Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which is highly regarded for its research into the corrections system and what can reduce recidivism. As we look at the system, we have to decide what values we hold: Do we want to punish people, or do we want to create a situation where they don’t offend in the future? For most of the public, the criminal justice system is a mixture of both.

We hope to draft a proposal to reduce spending in corrections by shifting that balance a little bit. Based on the evidence, we’ll propose a model that saves money with shorter sentences, but ensures that we have adequate chemical dependency treatment in the community so that ex-convicts aren’t almost guaranteed to fail and return to prison, at a cost of $35,000 per year per prisoner. Treatment is cheaper.

Treatment also is a more cost-effective solution to many problems addressed by programs in the child welfare system, such as Child Protective Services, foster care and adoption support. In many cases, children caught up in that system struggle in school. Treatment is cheaper, and yields better results.

I can’t promise that we’ll hold onto all our treatment options, but we will certainly try to hold onto as much as we can.

Contact Me

I love to hear from you about your issues, suggestions, or concerns. We can solve a lot of problems for people, direct you to resources, etc.


K-12 Funding Proposal – Additional Data

Posted on November 30, 2011 by Ross

I am posting CSV versions of the two data tables as several people have requested the data in searchable formats. We are typically careful about doing this as people can manipulate the data in ways that say different things than the original presentation did, and I’m hoping people are careful with it. The proposal will change over time, and the need to have current data with which to do analysis will be important.

Levy Options by school district Nov4 Table 1 (csv)

Levy Options by school district Nov4 Table 2 (csv)


K-12 Funding Proposal – Local Levy Swap

Posted on November 19, 2011 by Ross

I’m stepping outside my role as Ways and Means chairman to put out a personal proposal for comment. The idea described below is a big one, moving around about a billion dollars in property taxes that are used for the support of public schools.

I’m giving a speech on this topic Saturday morning at the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA) conference, and the support files for the proposal are linked at the bottom of this post.

Making changes this significant in how schools are funded is a big deal, and the proposal will require a 2/3 vote in the legislature if it’s to be adopted. It’s revenue-neutral in the beginning, but grows more quickly than the current system does. That will let us step up our funding of schools as we recover from the economic troubles we have today. If enough members are interested in the idea it’ll move through the system. If not, we will be stuck with some very ugly budget choices.

30 years ago, Washington State’s system of financing education was ruled unconstitutional for the same set of conditions that have re-emerged and again exist today. The budget situation we face this year is likely to result in additional reductions that will exacerbate the problems in the system.

In the McCleary case two years ago Washington courts ruled that school funding was unconstitutionally inadequate. Since then the recession has resulted in even more reduced funding.

The percent of the total funding for schools coming from local levies as a is back up to near the level it was when the Doran cases said the system was unconstitutional. This level of dependence on our current local tax system was found by the court to be unreliable and results in uneven distribution around the state.

The state’s contributions to K-12 education – due to the combined effects of initiatives and the mechanics of how our statewide property tax is collected – has also diminished over time. The original goal of setting aside $3.60 per $1,000 of property value is not even close to a reality.

The combined effects of these factors have led us to a funding system which is increasingly unstable and unreliable, and ultimately, unsustainable. This sets the stage for a replay of the types of devastating levy failures that crippled the system 30 years ago.

The legislature cannot add billions to the education budget in the worst economic downturn since the depression, but we can fix the structural elements of the system that will allow it to grow as we come out of the recession, and rebalance the dependence on local funding.

The basic idea is to do a revenue-neutral swap of state property tax for local levies, staying within the constitutional 1% limit for regular property taxes. This would make the statutory $3.60 per 1,000 set aside for public education a meaningful, rather than hollow, commitment, and bring $1 billion of existing local excess levies into a more regular and dependable tax structure – the statewide property tax.

Raise the state property tax from the current $2.03 per thousand dollars of property value to $3.20, raising about $1 billion in funding that is constitutionally dedicated to public school funding.

Distribute the new money to school districts using the normal school funding formulas, and simultaneously reduce each district’s local levy by the amount of new money they receive. This guarantees that each district will not be hurt financially by what is effectively a revenue neutral ‘swap’ of local for state tax collections in each school district.

Allow state property tax collections to grow as property values recover from the downturn, helping us deliver on our constitutional requirements.

Reset local levy lids in a simpler way, so that local communities better understand the relationship between their local levies and school programs and services. Set a simple per student levy lid that naturally adjusts for inflation and student growth in district.

With these changes we would no longer need “levy equalization,” hundreds of millions that we use to correct for the fact that some districts don’t have the property base to collect similar amounts of levies. These districts will be better served by increased state funding and less reliance on levies.

In addition, we should make local school levies more reliable, since they are likely to be a significant part of school funding well into the future. Instead of voting to renew levies every 4 years we should amend the constitution to allow voters to approve levies that would stay in place until the district wants to increase them.

Together these changes would result in a more stable system, a system that grows as we come out of the recession, and one that distributes funding more fairly across the state.

Support Files:

Slide Deck used in presentation

Data Table 1 – Impact on School Districts

Data Table 2 – Impact on taxpayers

Map of School District current grandfathered levy caps

3 Responses to K-12 Funding Proposal – Local Levy Swap


School Levies

Posted on July 12, 2011 by Ross

For the past two years we’ve had a group of technical experts working on proposals on how to fix school levies. They just released their report, available here. The report is amazingly detailed and is a great introduction into how levies work and some possible approaches to fixing the problems.

I read the immediately previous draft of the report (about 150 pages) and haven’t walked through the differences yet, but the draft did a good job of laying out alternatives, but not such a good job of picking a solution. The basic problems:

We depend MUCH too heavily on local property taxes to fund education. We are very close to the levels of dependence we had in the late 70s that created legal cases against the state for violating Article IXof the WA State Constitution.

The amount of funding available from local sources varies wildly between districts for two main reasons. First, some districts have more property wealth per student than others, and second, some districts have more legal ability to raise levies than other districts for strange historical reasons. This violates the “general and uniform” part of Article IX.

The formula for figuring out levies is complex beyond belief and hard to explain to legislators and voters.

Last year the state lost a big school funding case in court. (This is the “McCleary” case.) The appeal was heard in the last few months and we expect a decision in the early fall. It’s hard to believe that the court will find for the state.

We have work to do to come up with a system that makes more sense, and I’m open to suggestion, particularly places where we might change how the levy system works to make more sense. If you want to comment you should also read David Iseminger’s excellent thought exercise on his website. I don’t agree with all of it, but some of the ideas make a lot of sense.


Education Funding

Posted on June 27, 2011 by Ross

I’ve received hundreds of email messages this session urging me to not cut education funding. I agree. I tried very hard this year to have the least impact on K-12 as possible in the budget process. The House budget proposal was better for K-12 than either the Senate’s or the Governor’s proposals. In the final negotiations with the Senate we had to come closer to their proposal, particularly on educator compensation, though the 1.9% reduction we finally agreed to was less than the 3% the Senate had proposed.

Our K-12 investment is between 40 and 45% of the state’s general fund expenditures, so making any significant cuts without affecting K-12 is almost impossible. Specifically, the email messages urge me to “Do not cut education. Create a tax that provides stable, secure, and sustainable funding specifically for education.”

We have work to do as a state to provide an education system that’s adequate to prepare our children to succeed in the 21st century. Until this downturn I had hoped that a strategy of taking a larger share of the normal growth of the state budget would get us to the place we needed to be. I’m no longer sure this is true given the depths of the cuts that we’ve had to sustain over the last few years.

It’s hard to imagine a single tax that would adequately provide for public education, let alone our entire education system, including early learning and higher education. K-12 alone is 43% of the general fund budget. Our forebears thought they had provided for education by dedicating the property tax to K12, but this hasn’t worked out as well as they thought for a variety of reasons.

Had we not adopted the series of property tax limitation initiatives and acts of the legislature we would be generating about $1.5 billion a year more for K-12, and it would be constitutionally dedicated to public education, and not available to be spent on other things.

In addition to the inadequacy of funding at the state level there are a number of other pernicious problems in the K-12 funding system that need to be fixed. In particular,

Grandfathered salaries in a handful of districts. About a dozen districts have salaries for teachers that are up to 5% higher than those for the rest of the state. As you might imagine, districts near the grandfathered districts have a huge uphill fight in bargaining compensation.

There are similar differences in how school levies are figured out, with some districts able to raise significantly more money than others.

I intend to spend a large fraction of my time, and the time and attention of the Ways and Means committee in the House, addressing these problems and proposing a solution. There are a number of ideas to consider, including an intriguing idea called The Iseminger Education Finance Plan.” David’s plan is worth reading, though there are parts of it I’m not sure will work all that well.


Education Bills

Posted on February 17, 2011 by Ross

Many PTA parents have written in about a number of bills and I’m consolidating my responses in one post. The critical decisions we make about education this year will be how we decide to move forward with a long-term budget strategy. We need to decide as a state if we are going to live up to the needs of our children or not. I’ll write more about the options here in another post.

HB 1443 – Education Reform

This is a pretty comprehensive bill that modernizes a number of our funding streams and continues making data about what’s working and not working available to the public in a readable, consistent manner. The summary below is from the bill report: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/documents/billdocs/2011-12/Pdf/Bill%20Reports/House/1443%20HBR%20ED%2011.pdf

Requires the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) to ensure that a fairness and bias review has been conducted before implementing revisions to the state Essential Academic Learning Requirements.

Requires school districts to adopt a policy defining a high school credit and authorizes the State Board of Education to repeal a seat-time based definition.

Authorizes the SPI to require use of a kindergarten readiness assessment in low-performing schools receiving federal school improvement grants.

Allows Learning Assistance Program (LAP) funds to be used to support students in science and requires a study of the impact of remediation strategies funded by the LAP on student achievement.

Requires student performance data from the Transitional Bilingual Instructional Program to be reported online through the Washington State Report Card.

Adopts a definition of a highly capable student and directs the SPI to adopt consistent procedures for school districts to identify, assess, and select their most highly capable students for purposes of the Highly Capable Program.

Allows qualified graduates of the Recruiting Washington Teachers Program in high schools to participate on a space-available basis in an alternative route teacher preparation scholarship program.

Directs a Compensation Working Group to conduct a comprehensive analysis of educator professional development and mentoring needs.

It seems pretty reasonable and I’m supportive.

HB 1600 – Elementary Mathematics Specialists

I’m not as excited about this bill as I am about 1443. The bill basically creates a new job definition in elementary schools – a “math specialist.” This may be a practical response to the lack of math expertise in elementary school teachers, but I think it goes in the wrong direction strategically.

Across the state we have 40-50% turnover in the first 5 years of teaching careers in elementary school. This is a mixed blessing. Teachers typically improve substantially in their first few years on the job, so losing them so fast is a bad thing – we waste the investment in giving new teachers experience. The upside is that new entrance requirements for elementary school teachers can change the makeup of the teaching corps quickly.

I’d rather see us ensure that all of our elementary school teachers have a very strong grasp of mathematics through algebra and geometry. This does not seem unreasonable, given that many 6th graders are learning these skills and we require them as a graduation requirement from high school.

HB 1412/SB 5227 Math Graduation Requirements

This bill deals with our mathematics graduation requirements. We are in the process of switching from a single large test required for graduation (the WASL) to individual tests that are given at the end of the specific courses, specifically Algebra I and Geometry. The idea here is that you want kids to have the test happen in close proximity to the time they are finishing the course, which strikes me as a good idea. Tenth graders may have had algebra in 7th or 8th grade, or may be taking it in 10th grade and not have had geometry yet. I don’t care when kids learn Algebra, I just care that they know it.

There’s a timing problem when switching over from the older test and this bill allows students to take and pass one of the two tests and graduate. This is probably OK for a limited time period, but there is a huge amount of data that we do our young people a disservice by not ensuring that they learn these gateway skills. Kids who succeed at algebra 2 and take a real math class their senior year in high school are twice as likely to graduate from community college than kids who do not.

HB 1510 – Kindergarten Assessments

Part of our long-term efforts to improve both our early learning system and our K12 system require that we have some knowledge about literacy skills of kids as they arrive in Kindergarten. I think this is a reasonable bill. The goal is to get a baseline assessment of skills, not to create a “baby WASL” and I think it’s fine.

HB 1609 – Teacher layoffs

This is a very contentious bill that does two things:

Allows school districts to use performance evaluations in layoff decisions, rather than totally basing layoffs on seniority.

Creates a “mutual consent” model for teacher hiring. The teacher and principal both must agree before a teacher can be placed in a school building.

To understand this you have to understand how teacher evaluations work. Today less than one percent of teachers are rated unacceptable so this doesn’t have much practical impact. A program that I do believe will have practical impact is our effort to create a real evaluation system that uses student learning as part of the analysis, and that affects more than a fraction of a percent of teachers. Every state that has created a functional evaluation system has taken years to do so, and we will not be an exception. We are at the very beginning of this process.

I support the concept here which is why I co-sponsored the bill. I think we should most certainly consider competence in our hiring/firing and compensation decisions. However, teachers have a lot of legitimate concerns about arbitrary evaluations being used in hire/fire decisions and it’s important to make sure the evaluation system is ready to support decisions of this magnitude. I am not sure that it is at this point. I’m also hoping that we are largely done with teacher layoffs. That would make this part of the bill mostly moot.

The part I really like is called “mutual consent.” Having a culture in a school that works is incredibly important to student success. Allowing principals to construct their staffs to build that culture is important. This part of the bill would require that no teacher placements happen without both the teacher and the principal agreeing to it. A teacher should be able to refuse an assignment to a principal he or she doesn’t think they can work for, and a principal should be able to not hire a teacher that he or she doesn’t believe would be a good fit for the school.

The bill failed to pass out of the Education committee by the deadline and is mostly dead for the session. Sometimes bills come back from the dead, but I don’t think this one will.

1415 – Prioritizing Basic Education in the Budget Process

This is a proposal that has been floating around for several years to split the operating budget into two parts – education and everything else. The education part would have to be done first.

I don’t think this is a good idea for a variety of reasons:

Many of the decisions we make affect both the education budget and the rest of the budget. For example, the level of pension funding we adopt is a critical, and very large, number. It applies to every agency in the budget, and can’t get made until the entire framework is understood. Compensation decisions also cut across the entire budget.

This would add weeks to the legislative session. It takes a long time to go through the legislative process for a budget. Making our budget decisions in series rather than in parallel is guaranteed to make the entire process take forever.

Adding process that doesn’t improve outcomes isn’t the technique that will produce a better budgetary outcome for education. I’ve chosen a different strategy that I think will work better. What we’re doing is:

Change the structure of the education budget so it is very, very transparent. People will understand how we are spending money and what our choices are. The new budget structure goes into place for the 2011-13 budget.

Create a plan for moving forward, and make it very visible if we depart from the plan. This was the main effort behind my work on the Basic Education Financing Task Force and the major bills we passed in this area in 2009 and 2010.

Make every improvement we add to the education system part of the legal definition of “basic education” so that we cannot move backwards once something has been adopted.

My personal belief is that this strategy will be more effective than just changing the budget process. Every major education stakeholder group agreed with the proposal we brought forward in the last Legislature, including the PTA. I’d like to continue with this effort and not confuse the budget process.

Special Session Budget Report

Posted on December 13, 2010 by Ross

This weekend the Legislature met in a special session to address the budget shortfall. Unlike what you’ve heard in the press, we can’t all arrive in Olympia, figure out what we’re going to do, get agreement from 147 legislators, write it down on scraps of paper and call it a day. Turning all the decisions into a bill takes 2-3 days, including much error checking and review. Getting consensus took several weeks. All four caucuses (Senate, House, Democrats and Republicans) worked cooperatively with the Governor to make this happen. It was the smoothest budget change I’ve ever seen.

The total problem that needs to be solved is about $1.1 billion. There was about $8 billion in planned spending left in the fiscal year, so this is 13.75% of the remaining spending. We made changes that reduce the budget problem by between $550 and $700 million. There is a relatively complex interaction between the bill we passed and the Governor’s existing across the board cuts that we’re working out all the details of. This will take another few days. Solving $700 million of the problem leaves over $400 million left to resolve in the first few weeks of the session in January, but it’s good to get these decisions done and over with.

I don’t want to make this sound like a technical exercise – it wasn’t.


State Budget Options

Posted on September 29, 2010 by Ross

I’ve posted a document to the site that has a number of proposals on how we should address the budget situation we face this year. Like most other states our revenue has tumbled as a result of the change in spending habits coming from the economic downturn. I believe we face a structural change in how we as a state will operate, and that decisions we make today will have foundational impacts on the structure of the state in the future.

I’d love to receive comments on the ideas in the document. It’s the beginning of a plan, but a detailed plan will have to be built collaboratively with other legislators, including legislators from both sides of the aisle. It is impossible to make lasting structural changes without building broad consensus for them – a project I’ll be working on for the next 2 years.

Text Box: Budget Strategy – Structural Reset

Impact of Early Learning

Posted on September 15, 2010 by Ross

The New York Times had an article this weekend on the impact of Kindergarten teachers on student success later in life. It’s worth reading for lots of reasons, but perhaps the title is good enough: “The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten teachers.

The conclusions of the article are pretty useful:

Successful early learning matters:Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.”

Class size — which was the impetus of Project Star — evidently played some role. Classes with 13 to 17 students did better than classes with 22 to 25.

Quality teaching matters:Some are highly effective. Some are not. And the differences can affect students for years to come.”

The study goes on to do a present-value analysis of the added income from students witha good kindergarten teacher and puts the value at $320,000. This is a reach, and there is some normal variance between teachers to be expected, but focusing much of our efforts at improving the craft of teaching, with high-quality evaluations that provide a strong feedback loop about what’s working and what’s not is absolutely critical.

It’s also interesting to note that the article is is in the business section of the paper, and that the author of the study is a respected economist, rather than an education researcher. Making our education system work better is an important part of our economic development strategy, not just a nice thing to have.


Core 24 – Education for the 21st Century

Posted on September 14, 2010 by Ross

The State Board of Education will consider changes to the required number and distribution of credits required for high school graduation at their meeting tomorrow and Thursday. It is clear to the legislature, and pretty much to everyone who looks at the issue seriously, that it’s almost impossible to be prepared for college with fewer than 24 credits. Since I believe that every child should have the opportunity to go to college if that’s what they want to do it’s clear to me that high schools should be required to offer 24 credits. (This means at least a six period day.)

A bipartisan group of legislators sent a letter to the State Board of Education that expresses our opinion on this. You can read more about the issue at http://www.educationvoters.org/2010/09/10/core-24-23-23-21-19-18-17-16/ and send your comment directly to the State Board. They’ve heard a lot from me on this issue and hearing from you will help

Customizing education via the Internet

Posted on September 7, 2010 by Ross

My friend Richard Brodie commented on my labor day post that he thought education could be delivered a lot lot faster and cheaper over the internet. This sparked a debate about the effectiveness of machines over real teachers, the value of daydreaming, etc. Both points of view are incredibly valid. Here’s what we’re looking at on the “using the Internet” front. Daydreaming seems to take care of itself in schools…

Tens of thousands of students in Washington are now attending online high schools, where all the material and the interaction is delivered over the Internet. Al Gore would be proud. These schools are serving many kids for whom a traditional school isn’t the most effective way to get education – people who are remote, have special needs, don’t like the social environment, are being home-schooled, etc.

We’re starting to do analysis of the results, but it looks like we have a big drop-out rate. We also have concerns about students needing special education and not being able to get it from remote districts. I have some concerns about how the financing system works, but all of these are unrelated to the fact that many, many families in Washington are being well-served by these schools.

In other cases individual schools or districts are offering individual classes online as part of their regular program. This is great for a rural school to offer AP French Literature when they only have two kids that want it, or for a kid to take class when the schedule doesn’t work to take it physically. This is slower to catch on. My guess is that the financing model doesn’t work out for schools, making them reluctant to adopt the program. This’ll need to get fixed, and Rep. Marcie Maxwell from the 41st district is looking into it.

The most interesting opportunity from my point of view is to combine traditional schools (supervision, physical education, social interaction, sprots…) with very highly individualized instruction available by using online educaiton models in a traditional classroom. Each student gets to work at their own pace, and has a teacher available for consulting and extra help, but the material should be compelling. There are some great examples of this that various people are pursuing.

My personal hope is that the Bellevue School District will adopt this model as the core of the new Robinswood School as they re-invent it. We need some in-state experiments to validate the experience other states have had. It’s been scattered so far and will need a pretty controlled environment to test. I think this could be a compelling model to meld the two together and let kids get through school a lot faster. Many kids could be done with high school in 2 or 3 years if they could go at their own pace through the material. Others might take longer, but would be able to stay at their own pace through the curriculum.


Interesting Study on Charter Schools

Posted on June 30, 2010 by Ross

The US Dept of Education just released a study on charter middle schools that’s worth reading. Click Here for the report.

I’ve supported charter schools in the past as a way to experiment with new ways of building schools, but not as a panacea for all students. Just like regular schools, charter schools vary significantly in their performance. Most large scale studies find that there isn’t a huge difference in overall gains in student achievement between charters and traditional schools. This study of charter middle schools (funded by the federal government) isn’t any different.

The main conclusions:

On average, charter middle schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.

The impact of charter middle schools on student achievement varies significantly across schools.

Study charter schools serving more low income or low achieving students had statistically significant positive effects on math test scores, while charter schools serving more advantaged students—those with higher income and prior achievement—had significant negative effects on math test scores.

Some operational features of charter middle schools are associated with more positive (or less negative) impacts on achievement.

This study looked at popular charter schools (presumably among the more effective) and found that they produced student gains in low-income urban areas and declines in student performance in higher-income populations.

I don’t find this surprising. In many lower-income urban areas that are served by charters the traditional public option is not compelling. Higher-income suburban areas often have much stronger schools.

Text Box: It’s worth reading the executive summary of this study for the somewhat obvious insights – some schools are better than others, regardless of the charter/non-charter distinction. It’s up to us as policy makers to figure out how to make all the schools better – we should all have above average schools. (I understand that we can’t all live in Lake Woebegone, but we can hope, can’t we?)

Education Data

Posted on May 24, 2010 by Ross

For a number of years we’ve been working on improving the collection of data about education. This has been painful – there are 17 different data systems across K-12, plus different systems in each of the higher ed silos and no data collection at all in early learning. We’re trying to make sure we understand what works and what doesn’t. Good data is like History – without it we’re likely to repeat what we’ve been doing, regardless of how well it works.

Of course, none of the individual people who control their existing system want to change, so this has been a bit painful. We just got a big grant form the feds to improve our system. The following is from the Governor’s press release on the topic:

Washington Awarded $17.3 Million for Education Data System

For Immediate Release: May 21, 2010

OLYMPIA — Washington state was awarded $17.3 million for the design and implementation of a statewide data system, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced this morning.
The money is being funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Known as a statewide longitudinal data systems grant, the money will support the development of an integrated data system from early childhood education to adult employment.

Text Box: There’s more – click here: http://www.governor.wa.gov/news/news-view.asp?pressRelease=1504&newsType=1

Tax Evasion for Dummies, the video

Posted on May 18, 2010 by Ross

During the session this year I did a number of presentations of a slideshow on how people evade taxes in Washington and the key points of a bill that would limit the ability for some of these scams to work. Eventually I recorded the show so that other people could see it. This is my first cut at the “new media” approach to politics so it’s not that good yet, (e.g. it’s too long) but enough people wanted access that I’m posting it here.

You can access it directly on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uAe-mZZyO4

You can search youtube for “tax evasion for dummies”.

Text Box: And, barring blogging software disasters you can watch it here.

Tax Evasion for Dummies, the video

Posted on May 18, 2010 by Ross

During the session this year I did a number of presentations of a slideshow on how people evade taxes in Washington and the key points of a bill that would limit the ability for some of these scams to work. Eventually I recorded the show so that other people could see it. This is my first cut at the “new media” approach to politics so it’s not that good yet, (e.g. it’s too long) but enough people wanted access that I’m posting it here.

You can access it directly on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uAe-mZZyO4

You can search youtube for “tax evasion for dummies”.


Interesting Pension Fund Data

Posted on March 16, 2010 by Ross

The following was included in the most recent issue of Capitol Ideas, the magazine published by the Council of State Governments:

Description: http://rosshunter.info/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Pension-Funding-map-2007-data.jpg

“A new report from the Pew Center on the States finds a $1 trillion gap between the $2.35 trillion states have set aside to pay for employees’ retirement benefits and the $3.35 trillion price tag of those promises. The report, The Trillion Dollar Gap: Underfunded State Retirement Systems and the Road to Reform, found in eight states more than one-third of the pension liability was unfunded as of the 2008 fiscal year, while two states—Illinois and Kansas—had less than 60 percent of the necessary assets on hand. The Government Accountability Office says 80 percent is the preferred benchmark funding level.”

As you can see on the map, Washington is doing relatively well compared to other states. This data is from 2007 when our pesnion fund was at the height of the market. We are not currently at 100% funded given the declines in the market value of our portfolio. Nevertheless, I would be surprised if our fund has declined significantly relative to other states.


What’s a Tax Loophole?

Posted on March 14, 2010 by Ross

When you and I sell our homes, we pay real estate excise tax. So how come some businesses don’t pay it on multi-million-dollar transactions? If we hire contractors to remodel our homes, those contractors must charge sales tax on their labor. But some developers have figured out a way to avoid paying that tax on mega construction jobs.

Unfair? You bet it is, and that is why I have sponsored a bill to close these and several other loopholes and challenge questionable shell corporations set up for no other apparent reason than to avoid paying the same taxes you and I routinely pay.

My proposal, part of all the revenue proposals, would recover an estimated $25 million a year in taxes that clever companies avoid paying through manipulation of the state tax code.

Minimizing tax liability may be a traditional American practice, but I am troubled by cases where the intent of the law is clearly being circumvented. We need to preserve the integrity of our tax system by addressing these schemes.

Defeat the REET

An increasing number of businesses have figured out how to avoid paying real estate excise tax (REET) on controlling interest transfers of real estate. Businesses frequently buy businesses that own real estate, and the law says the seller must pay tax on the value of the real estate when a “controlling interest” of the business is transferred within a 12-month period. Enter the “stepped-transaction” scheme in which a company sells 49 percent of a company initially, but gives the buyer legal options to buy the rest at a later date, after the 12-month clock runs out. The whole business eventually gets transferred, but no tax is paid.

Here’s an even more egregious example: A company sets up a Limited Liability Company (LLC), transfers real estate to that LLC, has the LLC sell the real estate to the third party, and then dissolves the LLC without paying REET. The joke is on the Department of Revenue, because the law says the seller is responsible for paying the tax, but the seller (the LLC) no longer exists.

Yet another ploy is the contention made by some publicly-traded companies that the Department needs to go after shareholders, not the corporations themselves, for unpaid REET, making collection all but impossible.

Creative Contracting

The contractor-partner has emerged as another clever approach to escape sales tax that the state intended to be due on construction labor. Rather than simply be paid to build a high-rise, contractors increasingly are entering into partnerships with developers. The contractor is still doing contracting, but gets paid in non-taxable distributions rather than taxable contractor dollars. The partnership is dissolved after the building is complete, and state and local governments get stung again. This approach has been used in projects approaching $500 million in construction costs, which equates to $20 million of taxpayer money at risk.

Shame on Sham Transactions

Businesses often complain about the Business and Occupation tax, but most companies still pay their fair share. However, some companies are taking matters into their own hands by creating out-of-state shell corporations to avoid most of it.

Millions of dollars in earnings are being moved to out-of-state affiliates and then returned to the original Washington business through nontaxable means such as dividends. These out-of-state affiliates aren’t really engaged in business, and are structured solely to reduce a business’s Washington tax liability. This is how the scheme works. A Washington company creates a Nevada affiliate to supposedly provide services to its Washington customers. The Nevada affiliate, which often consists of one employee and a post office box, contracts with the Washington company to provide those services on its behalf. In one case, the Nevada affiliate charged the Washington customers $20 million for services performed by the 200 employees at the Washington company, but the Nevada affiliate paid the Washington company only $6,000 for that work. The Washington company had only $6,000 in gross income subject to the B&O tax, with the rest of the $20 million flowing to the Washington company as tax-exempt dividends.

Corporate Shell Games

A more personal version of the out-of-state shell game involves purchases of vehicles and equipment that otherwise would be subject to sales and use tax. An individual wanting to buy an expensive motorhome, for example, creates a Montana corporation that supposedly owns the vehicle even though it is parked in the owner’s Washington driveway.

Economic Nexus Needed

Out-of-state banks, service providers, and franchisers make millions of dollars in profits on services to Washington customers, yet none pays a dime in taxes because they have no physical presence here. We need to update our old physical nexus requirement to an economic one: simply put, if you do business here, you should pay the same taxes as your in-state competitors. Most of the additional revenue generated by establishing an economic nexus standard would be paid by banks and credit card companies, but we’d also level the playing field for our in-state engineers, architects and other service providers, who now operate at a disadvantage to their out-of-state competition. Proposed changes in apportioning income for businesses that operate in multiple states actually would reduce state taxes for many in-state businesses.


School Funding post-McCleary

Posted on February 5, 2010 by Ross

I have not yet completely read the long opinion Judge Erlick issued yesterday in a court case brought by school districts, parents, and educator groups but I’m excited by the summary and the implications for a positive impact on school funding in Washington. The judge ruled that the state does not adequately fund public education and that we are not meeting the constitutional requirement that we “amply provide for the education of all students.”

Like most judicial opinions that require the state to do something, rather than an opinion ruling some action of the state unconstitutional, there is a lot of deference given to the legislature in how to carry out the ruling. For example, when the US Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education case the ruling phrase was that we should use “all deliberate speed” in eliminating segregation in schools. This was pretty ambiguous, but served as the basis for many actions, including federal protection of children attending previously forbidden schools and much court supervision over desegregation plans.

Judge Erlick ruled that the plan we passed last year (HB 2261, the result of our Basic Education Financing Task Force) was an acceptable framework for clearly stating what basic education entails and determining the cost. I’m pleased that the plan we produced meets the court’s approval, but now we will have to both close down the details of it AND determine a funding plan.

Our approach to determining the right amount of funding for K12 is called the “model schools” approach. We lay out the resources needed per building, and scale them based on the number of children in the school, and the number of children in the school that require special ed, gifted, or english langauge help, and the overall level of poverty in the school’s population. We adoped the basic structure of this approach last year, did a lot of detail work in the interim, and will adopt the final values for class size and other critical values this session.

Of course, this will be very contentious. In light of this ruling, determining the end goals in the definition of basic education will, in fact, require the state to fund them. This will necessarily result in less being spent on other priorities.

This interim we will have to address the financing plan – not how to spend it, but how to ensure that there is enough money available. I think we need to discuss many things about local and state property taxes and the right mix between them, including ways to make school funding more consistent and reliable.

I organized many of my collegues to sign a letter to the governor and the attorney general asking them to not appeal this case. I think Judge Erlich only pointed what is obvious to anyone who looks at our school system and compares it to the guarantee in our constitution, that school funding “is not ample, is not stable, and is not dependable.”

The Judge continues “Accordingly, the State is directed to determine the cost of amply providing for basic education and a basic program of education for all children resident in the State of Washington. The State must also comply with the Constitutional mandate to provide stable and dependable funding for such costs of basic education. Funding must be based as closely as reasonably practicable on the actual costs of providing such programs of basic education. The means of fulfilling this Constitutional mandate properly fall within the prerogative of the Legislature.”

We have work to do. I see a long summer working out the details of our approach.

For details you can read the actual opinion. 99 pages.



Court rules against state on school funding!

Posted on February 4, 2010 by Ross

Today Judge John Erlick of King County Superior Court ruled that the state not met its constitutional requirements for “ample” funding of schools. I’m still working my way through the ruling, but released the following statement earlier today.

Statement from Rep. Ross Hunter on King County Superior Court’s school funding ruling

“Today’s court ruling doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know – the Legislature is not giving schools the money they need to provide the quality of education we want. This issue is why I ran for the Legislature in 2002 and it remains my top priority to this day.”

“We took an historic step forward last session when we passed House Bill 2261. We expanded the definition of basic education and committed ourselves to reworking the funding formula to make sure lawmakers pay for it. We made students and student success the basis of our new funding approach. I’ve said all along that when our children graduate from high school they should be prepared for jobs that don’t require paper hats. Clearly the courts agree.”

“I don’t think the state should waste money appealing this decision. It lights a much-needed fire under legislators to put education funding first.”


Thanks for attending my telephone town hall

Posted on December 15, 2009 by Ross

We made almost 30,000 calls to people in the 48th district tonight. Over 6000 attended part of the town hall, with about 500 people on the call for most of the time, and 160 die-hards who stayed until the end. I’ve never had more than 200 people at a town hall before, so this reached people whom I would not have reached otherwise.

I still like the live events, and will mostly do those, but I’ll try to do 2 of these a year. They’re expensive, so I won’t do many.

People asked about spending money in smart ways on K-12 and I said I’d re-post my documents from last year. here they are:

Basic-Ed Funding Proposal 10-1

Basic Ed Finance 4 Page Overview

I also mentioned a chart I included in my newsletter about the growth in the state budget over time. I’ve included that here as well.


I look forward to returning the phone calls from people who left messages, and of, the rest of you as well.


Education Agenda for 2010

Posted on November 30, 2009 by Ross

I just posted a bunch of entries on my blog (www.rosshunter.info) that are part of what needs to happen this year on the K-12 front. I broke it up so that the items would be readable, unlike my multi-page newsletters…

2010 will be a pivotal one for education in Washington at all levels. There are a handful of key issues:

Funding. The overall budget is a disaster, with precipitous revenue declines threatening our ability to provide children with an adequate, let alone an ample education. Last year we made substantial cuts in K12 funding, though much lower as a percentage of the budget than any other area. I expect we will have to make additional cuts again this year.

Local levies. There is a structural problem with local levies that is exacerbated when the state cuts its contribution. We need to take corrective action, preferably at a one-day special session in December.

Race to the Top. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have created a very large ($5.4 billion) fund to incent states to implement school improvement strategies. Washington is not currently in the running for this given the policies we have in place. There is an effort I’m helping with this year to improve our chances of winning some of this money.

Math/Science standards. I’ve worked successfully over the past few years to make improvements in our math and science standards. Unfortunately the Superintendent of Public Instruction has proposed a set of changes to graduation requirements that would result in serious reductions in the level of preparedness of our students. I will oppose these changes.


Local School Levies

Posted on November 30, 2009 by Ross

School districts are allowed to raise local levies to fund things that are not “basic education.” The state limits the amount they can raise to a percentage of the total they receive in state and federal funding. This is so that districts like Bellevue don’t raise twice as much as districts like Yakima. The standard formula is that districts can raise up to 24% of what we call the “levy base,” the total state and federal funding. Some districts are allowed to raise more for obscure historical reasons. For example Bellevue is allowed to raise 30%, Lake Washington 25%, and Seattle 34%.

The amount districts get resulting from initiative 728 and 732 is substantial – it could be as much as $750 or more per student. We’ve had to suspend these initiatives this year, which means that the levy base for the district goes down. If the levy base goes down, the amount that a district can collect in local property taxes goes down, even though voters have already voted to approve the higher amount. It’s like the voters wrote a check that the districts are being prohibited from cashing.

HB 1776 allows districts to compute their levy base as if they were still getting the 728 and 732 money. This doesn’t cost the state money and allows local voters control over what they do.

We tried to pass this bill last year right at the end of the session but it got hung up in the budget discussions. We had it up for a vote on the last day but did not have time to finish the debate. There are complex timing issues about school levy planning that make it important to pass in December for districts that have levies on the ballot this year. To make this happen the governor needs to call a special session. We are in Olympia for a few days in December anyway and this would therefore cost very little money and should be relatively non-controversial. For her to do this she will need to be convinced that the House and Senate are willing to pass only this bill and not get sidetracked doing other stuff that can wait for January.

Waiting for January will needlessly complicate the lives of districts that have local levies in front of voters in February.


Race To The Top Funding

Posted on November 30, 2009 by Ross

The Obama administration under Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made $4.35 billion available to districts that demonstrate they are making progress in four areas:

Standards and Assessments

Data Systems to Support Instruction

Great Teachers and Leaders

Turning Around Struggling Schools

We have real work to do in order to have even a remote chance of winning any of this money. There are two absolute requirements: 1) approval of state applications in Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, and 2) no statutory or regulatory barriers to linking data about student achievement to teachers and principals for the purposes of evaluation.

Governor Gregoire has decided to not spend the time necessary to prepare an application for round 1, as we are assured of not winning. Winning in Round 2 will require the legislature to pass some changes. Fortunately we have met the absolute requirements. I inserted an amendment to a bill 2 years ago that requires school districts to report data linking students to teachers, classes taken, and principals. It’s taking a while to collect this, but we are getting there piece by piece.

To get any of this money we believe that we will have to make the following changes:

Allow the Superintendent of Public Instruction to intervene in schools that are chronic failures. If a particular school fails children for generations, the state should be able to take action, relieving the local district of control if necessary. This has been blocked by state law for more than a decade.

Make changes to how teachers are assigned to schools to ensure that there is equitable distribution of highly-qualified teachers to low-performing schools. The opposite tends to be true. Marguerite Roza at the University of Washington has done interesting work in this area.

Report on the effectiveness of teacher and principal preparation programs. I expect this to be difficult, as there isn’t much data available. A lot of the data about teacher certification is still stored on microfiche in the basement of the OSPI building, making it difficult to link the student achievement data together with the information about which school a teacher went to.

Differentiate teacher and principal effectiveness based on student growth and use that data for compensation, evaluation, and tenure decisions. This sounds like a no-brainer, but is really, really difficult to implement in a fair way. I was part of a group of legislators made a proposal on this last year as part of a comprehensive plan to revamp our compensation system. We may have reached further than people were willing to go, but to get this money I believe we will need significant effort here.

Promote charter schools. This won’t happen. I am hopeful that the scoring system doesn’t depend totally on this, but after the defeat at the polls in 2004 I don’t expect any significant change here.

I’m not particularly hopeful that we’ll get any of the money, but agree with most of the proposals, or at least in their direction. We are still working out how these changes will be proposed in legislation. More as we work out the details.


Education Funding in 2010

Posted on November 30, 2009 by Ross

This will be a difficult year for short-term funding of education in Washington, and in almost all of the other states. In 2009 we cut everything that moved in the budget, but made the smallest cuts in the K-12 budget. I expect this to be true in 2010 as well, and will work hard to keep it that way.

Last year we passed HB2261, the start of a long-term process to re-write how our state funds public education. As is typical, I am willing to make changes more rapidly than many of my co-workers, and much more rapidly than the many, many vested interests in the existing system. I’m learning to be more patient, though it’s very painful. In reality, getting it right is pretty important. Last year we approved the outline for about half of the changes that need to happen, and set up a process to get the other parts closer to decisions.

First, the legislature agreed that we would adopt the “model school proposal” for laying out how much money is necessary to fund a school. I wrote about this extensively last year, and would urge you to review the proposal by reading one of the two following links:

4-page Overview: http://rosshunter.info/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/basic-ed-funding-4-page-overview_final.pdf

Entire Report: http://rosshunter.info/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Basic-Ed-Funding-Proposal-10-1.pdf

A task force was created to implement the model schools part, with a report due in December. This leaves enough time to work out the details in legislation before the session so we can get it done this year. I’m a little nervous about what will happen – the process gets resolved this week. I’ll write about what they do next week.

Compensation, in particular any changes to the current seniority and education-based system that might make it more based on demonstrated performance are the work of a task force that starts this spring. We may want to accelerate this in response to the race to the top funding proposal.

The balance between local levies and state funding is also outstanding, and the subject of a workgroup this summer. This is particularly complex, with significant differences of opinion based on where in the state you live.

All of this is almost made moot by the dramatic decline in revenue the state is experiencing. Last year we cut $1.5 billion from the K-12 budget, and I can see further cuts coming this year given the dramatic decline we are experiencing in revenue overall. Trying to do the planning on how we will come out of this recession in a smart way is critical, and that will be the result of the entire project. I’m hopefully optimistic.


Education Standards

Posted on November 30, 2009 by Ross

As all of you who have children know, they will often live up to what you expect of them, as long as they believe the expectations are reasonable. My consistent belief is that we should expect all of our students to graduate from high school ready to succeed in whatever it is they want to do, as long as that something isn’t lying around playing video games. Our children should be able to either be prepared to go to college, go to some kind of technical school, or otherwise be prepared for a career that pays them a living wage.

More and more this requires education after high school. The superintendent of public instruction (SPI) Randy Dorn just came out with a proposal in this area I find to be a significant step backwards. For example, he thinks we should require kids to only have two years of mathematics to graduate. http://k12.wa.us/Communications/PressReleases2009/WSSDAConference.aspx

I disagree, and will work hard to implement what the state board of education has been working on – “Core 24,” a significant increase in the level of rigor we require as a state. (http://www.sbe.wa.gov/mhsd.htm) I do not believe that lowering our requirements is a good strategy for improving outcomes for our children. Furthermore, I believe it will do significant harm to the most vulnerable kids – those without strong parental pressure at home, strong community supports, and all the other elements that more well-to-do families often have and that less well off families struggle to provide. Lowing standards does a serious disservice to our most at-risk children, and will make the achievement gap worse.


Another Bizarre Supreme Court Decision

Posted on November 12, 2009 by Ross

Today the WA State Supreme Court issued a decision in the Federal Way school district case. Federal Way sued the state complaining that our distribution of funds did not meet the constitution’s requirement for a “general and uniform” way of funding schools. In specific, the district complained that since allocations to school districts for teacher salaries were based on historical patterns from over a quarter of a century ago it was effectively arbitrary and capricious.

I personally agree with Federal Way – there is no rational basis for the distribution other than political expediency.

The Supreme Court disagreed. I have not completely read the opinion, but it seems convoluted to me.


New Tax Foundation Study – Where do states spend their money?

Posted on October 30, 2009 by Ross

I find the research this organization does fascinating, which probably says more about me than them, but there it is. The Tax Foundation is the organization that brings you “Tax Freedom Day.” I agree with them on some of their principles about well-designed tax systems, but they have a “less is more” strategy to government that pervades all of their work.

Nevertheless, a report they have just released is pretty interesting. They compare the 50 states on the percentage they spend on various sectors of the economy. It’s worth looking at the summary charts, which are available here:


Washington ranks high in the concentration of spending on housing/environment and health, but not on K12. This data is based on 2007 numbers, and I expect it to change dramatically when they look at the 2009 numbers in a few years. We cut everything else much more deeply than we did K12, which will skew the results significantly.


McCleary Case – Education Funding in the courts

Posted on October 25, 2009 by Ross

Closing arguments were heard last week in the “McCleary case.” The summary below from one of our non-partisan staff attorneys is very brief, but clear. (As is usual with her work – we are lucky to have someone this smart working for us.)

This suit will provide further impetus for the legislature to finish the work we started in 2261 last year and actually specify the numerical values in the bill. More on this as we get our legislative strategy prepared for the session.

Staff commentary:

Closing arguments took place yesterday in the McCleary basic education lawsuit, marking the end of an eight-week trial. Judge Erlick was very engaged and asked both attorneys difficult and pentrating questions.

Unsurprisingly, the judge did not rule from the bench. Per the state constitution, the superior court has 90 days in which to render a decision, and the judge indicated that he would probably need the full allotment. The judge also indicated that he might request further briefing and arguments on additional issue as he works through the process of rendering a decision.

To summarize the arguments very briefly:

Plaintiffs (Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, a coalition of school districts, parents, education organizations, etc.)

The plaintiffs asked the court to do four things:

Define the constitutional terms “paramount,” “ample,” and “all.”

Define the constitutional term “education.”

Rule that the state is not fully funding this definition of “education.”

Order the state to conduct a cost study that determines the cost of funding this definition of “education.”

Plaintiffs argued that the current basic education funding formulas result in a tautology: the state argues that it has funded the formulas, therefore the state has funded basic education. In requesting that the court define “education,” the plaintffs are asking the court to issue a more substantive, program-based definition, in contrast to the the BEA’s focus on ratios and funding allocation methods. Specifically, they asked the court to reaffirm School Funding I and then rule that 1209 and the Essential Acacdemic Learning Requirements define education, in order to “take away the state’s excuses.” .

Plaintiffs then argued that the evidence demonstrates the state is not funding this definition, citing transportation underfunding, drop-out rates, WASL failure rates, and reliance on levies. Plaintiffs also set forth arguments about why school construction must be included in the state’s constitutional funding obligations

The court asked plaintiffs why they were basically asking for yet another K-12 study, and whether full implementation of the BEFTF recommendations or 2261 would resolve the matter. Plaintiffs responded that history has shown that future legislatures do not do what previous legislatures promised. In conclusion, they declared that the legislature has not defined the content of basic education nor designed a program to implement it.

The State

In response, the state told the court that events have overtaken the lawsuit—since the suit was filed in January of 2007, the legislature has convened the BEFTF and enacted 2261. The state argued that 2261 is really what the plaintiffs are looking for, and that the court should let that effort continue. At the same time, just because the state is changing the system and moving ahead with a solution, it doesn’t follow that the old system was constitutionally faulty. The state distinguished the present situation from the facts facing the court in the 1977 School Funding I case, where the legislature had entirely failed to define a program and establish a funding mechanism. Instead, the legislature is meeting its constitutional duty of reviewing and revising programs and funding.

The state further contended that and that the plaintiffs’ argument in effect contained a flawed tautology—that every dollar spent by a school district must be part of the state’s funding obligation. On several grounds, the plaintiffs had not met their difficult burden of proving that the current system is unconstitutional.

In response to a hypothetical from the court—what if the court were to find that levy dollars were being used to subsidize basic education?—the state (without conceding the point) explained that the court should use the same restraint as did the court in School Funding I: tell the legislature to fix the problem, but leave the method to the legislature.

In conclusion, the state argued that plaintiffs’ remedy was bad law, bad science, and unworkable.

This is a very brief summary of five hours of argument, that concluded a two-month trial, so it necessarily omits a lot. Needless to say, it is very difficult to predict how a court may rule. This trial is just one milestone in the long legal process. Assuming the court issues a decision in January, in all likelihood the ruling will be appealed to the state Supreme Court. It generally takes six months to a year for the state Supreme Court to accept review and hear arguments, with another six months to one year (at least) for the court to issue its decision.


Interesting Presentation on California’s Education Funding Issues

Posted on September 25, 2009 by Ross

California’s issues are in many ways similar to Washington’s. Doing a constitutional re-write to allow the locals to carry the costs of education would be interesting, and his solution would probably result in more funding across the board. I would have to play with some numbers (a lot) to see if met my fairness bar, but it’s worth pursuing.




Tuition Increases?

Posted on April 16, 2009 by Ross

The Seattle Times wrote an interesting article in this morning’s paper about the budget question facing us about higher education. Both House and Senate proposals do terrible things to the higher education system in Washington. It’s worth the read. We have to decide if we want to allow the universities to raise tuition, or just continue to reduce the state’s investment in higher ed – something that will have devastating long-term consequences for economic competitiveness of the state if we do so.



HB 2343 – National Board Certification Bonus

Posted on April 14, 2009 by Ross

HB 2343 does a number of ugly things to the K12 system as part of the terrible, devastating budget cuts to education and everything else the state does. One of the proposed changes is to permanently eliminate the inflation adjustment to the bonus we pay to teachers who have achieved National Board Certification. I do not support this change. I will attempt to amend the provision out of the bill. While we are not able to provide the cost of living adjustment in this year’s budget, we should re-start our commitment next year. The bill is permanent. My amendment makes it temporary for this budget only.

The National Board system is the one performance-based element of our compensation system. There is reasonably strong experimental evidence that students who have a National Board certified teacher learn 7-14% more material in a given year than students who have a similarly situated teacher who is not certified. I worked for 5 years to get this element into the law and will work equally hard to keep in play. We cannot expect teachers to make the investment in the training and the extensive application process if we are going to frequently change the availability of the funds for the bonus.

For more information on the bill click here


Hobbesian Choices

Posted on April 1, 2009 by Ross

The chairs of the House and of the Senate budget committees both introduced their budget proposals this week. The committees will vote on them soon, though none of us can say exactly when at this point. Typically the bills are introduced and passed in about 3 days. The minority party always whines that they don’t have enough time to even read the bill before it passes. Not this year. It’s not clear to me that we have the votes to pass the budget in the House Ways and Means committee, nor is it clear in the Senate.

Both budgets make deeper cuts than we’ve seen since the early 80s, and would be like we saw in the depression if it were not for the federal stimulus plan. Our revenue projection would be almost a billion dollars lower if not for the plan’s predicted effect on the economy, and there is about $3 billion in direct aid to the states. It all comes with stringent rules for its use (“strings”) and is hard to track in the budgets.

For the first time in modern history, this budget is less than the previous 2-year budget, by about $1 billion. This is despite significant inflation in the costs we face and increases in population. For example, there are more students in public school, and not just because of population increases. When the economy tanks, people transfer from private schools to public ones, increasing the caseload even more. This happens in other areas too – our Medicaid caseloads are up, as are many other costs of providing the same services we did last year.

What this means is that we won’t provide the same service we did last year. Current budgets include:

Raising class sizes and laying off the teachers. We’ll lay off 3-5 thousand teachers from the 728 program. The senate budget cuts it more.

Eliminating support for 10,000 “slots” in higher education. This is 10,000 fewer students in Washington that will be able to get a college education.

Cutting much the Basic Health Plan, a program that provides health care to low-income working adults.

Reducing the rates we pay to nursing homes that take care of our low-income elderly on Medicaid. We squeeze these pretty hard, and they’ll get squeezed harder by this. It will be harder to find a nursing home or other long-term care facility near your home, particularly if you are in our district where the real-estate prices are high.

Laying off thousands more workers in other parts of state government.

I can go on. You can find the budgets online if you want, or you can read the news stories about what we’re cutting in the papers, should we still have any next week.

Continue reading →


Updates to Basic Ed Financing

Posted on March 31, 2009 by Ross

The Senate released their budget yesterday. The House releases its today. I’ll opine later on the differences. Both are mostly no-new-revenue budgets. The Senate packages up closing some tax loopholes. The House comes out later this morning so I can’t comment on it now.

Both bodies have passed a version of the Basic Education Finance Task Force bill. The House bill was the stronger of the two. HB 2261. You can get details here: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=2261&year=2009

Our staff has written an analysis of the two that may prove helpful.

summary-of-sen-striker-to-2261 is a short summary of changes made to the senate bill in committee.

comparison-house-senate-as-passed-comm-2 is a longer summary of the differences between the original House bill and the bill as it passed out of the Senate Education committee yesterday.

We still need to decide what form the bill will take in the end game and how we convince the Governor to sign it. There is much resistance to a bill that creates serious stakes in the ground for education.

Posted in Budget, Education|Tagged Basic Ed, BEFTF|Comments Off


Pages – A great experience for young people

Posted on March 30, 2009 by Ross

I’ve had a number of excellent young people serve the Legislature this year as a page. If you’re between the ages of 14 and 16 you can serve as a page for a week. It’s a valuable experience for the young person and they do invaluable work while they’re here.


Differences between the House and Senate versions of Ed Finance Reform

Posted on March 15, 2009 by Ross

The House and Seante passed VERY different versions of the reform legislation. Below is a staff summary of the differences in language that’s reasonably easy to understand, though still somewhat “inside baseball.” The Spokesman-Review in Spokane captures it in language that makes more sense to the casual reader when they say

What’s emerged in the Senate is a “We Love Education” bumper sticker.

The hollowed-out bill states an intent to really, really do something about this issue in the next biennium. The following have been removed: Core 24 (the state board of education’s wish to increase the number of required graduation credits from 19 to 24), all-day kindergarten, preschool for low-income children, an increase in transportation dollars, school accountability and changes in teacher certification, assessments and pay. Spokesman-Review full editorial

It’s too easy to demonize one side or the other in this debate, and difficult to come to an agreement about the most important thing we do as a state government. We’ll keep working on the overall plan and try to get to a final agreement that makes sense and does more than just move the ball forward.



House Approves Ed Finance Bill

Posted on March 13, 2009 by Ross

Last night the House approved the current incarnation of our ed finance reform bill – HB 2261. I’m including links to some summaries of the bill, including the AP story from the Seattle PI site (out of nostalgia). It’s depressing that Curt Woodward was the only reporter physically present on the floor when we passed the bill – there used to be many, many more.

AP Story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Staff Summary of ESSB 2261

The bill includes an amendment from me that creates the strong legal definition of “basic education,” a key element of requiring the Legislature to step up to the level of funding required to provide students with the opportunity to earn a meaningful diploma.

We have more work to do as you can tell from the following comparison of this bill to our initial proposal. I can guarantee that we won’t do a bill exactly like our first proposal, but we need to address all the same categories of decisions. We are making progress and I hope to continue.

Comparison of HB 1410 and ESSB 2261


Education Financing Update

Posted on February 21, 2009 by Ross

For the entire 6 years I’ve been in the legislature I’ve worked on school funding. I’ve tried to improve the amount and the efficacy of use of the money. This year a bipartisan group of six legislators introduced a package of reforms coming from the Basic Education Financing Task Force report. I’ve written about it in this blog before (http://www.rosshunter.info/?cat=3) and will in the future.

We’re in the middle of a tumultuous period in the evolution of the bills. Our original bills (HB 1410 and SB 5444) were a 110 page first draft that we expected to engender a robust discussion. We were right about part of it – the discussion was robust, but unfortunately not substantive. The Olympia-based education groups have been very negative on the proposal, with most outside groups supportive. The legislation changes distribution of billions of dollars, and we were probably naive to expect change of this magnitude to go smoothly.

We’ve taken a new approach – we’re starting with a blank slate instead of a large first draft. We’ve introduced two bills with similar titles but no real content. The new bills are HB 2261 and SB 6048. We will move these bills through the system while we work on re-crafting a comprehensive bill. This is the strategy we used successfully in fixing the math standards last year.

Behind the scenes the House and Senate are working daily on trying to build consensus around the big pieces of the package. We’ll recapitulate the process we used to build the original legislation with the six of us in a room, but with many more people involved. I expect this to be painful, but it’s a necessary step. Pat, Skip, Rodney, Fred, Glenn and I spent hundreds of hours learning and working with the alternatives. We’ll try to lead everyone through the same process, but in less time.

This will be a circuitous process. We need your input as we move forward. Thanks for staying engaged.


Open Letter to Teachers about HB 1410

Posted on February 15, 2009 by Ross

I’ve had a lot of questions from teachers on HB 1410 that seem to indicate some misunderstanding of our intent and I believe a misreading of the bill. 1410 is a serious attempt to address school funding inadequacies and the structural problems that have built up over 30 years since the last major revision. The worst structural problem affecting teachers is the legislature’s inability to give raises to teachers without bankrupting school districts. This occurs due to the interaction between TRI pay and the number of teachers local districts have to hire to meet even a weak definition of “basic education.” This is crazy, and not in the interest of anyone in the system, most particularly teachers.

Our seminal observation about the current system is that it’s resulted in a pretty serious decline in the relative competitiveness of teacher salaries over the last few decades. The stat I use with some frequency is that the SAT scores of students entering teaching programs at universities have declined 75 points over the last 25-30 years. The number is national, not specific to Washington, but is an indicator that we’re losing our attractiveness to the top students. This is a recipe for failure of the system, as we totally depend on teacher quality for any results. The first thing we MUST do is start with competitive teacher salaries. Our proposal includes a comparable wage survey of the labor markets in Washington, comparing teacher salaries to jobs that have similar educational and talent requirements.

Other issues have been raised in emails and letters from teachers. Below I’ve tried to address some of the more common questions.

There is no money in the bill — it’s just unfunded mandates!

We’ve taken a strategy of relying on the constitution’s protection for “basic education” funding as the core of our approach to increasing spending. In severe downturns the courts have ruled that “basic education” is immune from cuts, and the state must find a way to fund it. 1410 expands the definition of basic education to include the expenditures necessary to provide enough instructional time to meet the state’s graduation requirements, with adjustments to provide extra time for struggling students, those learning English, and special education, with a little early learning for at-risk kids thrown in. This is a very large expansion over our current definition. Our initial estimates have it costing as much as 40-60% more than we are spending today.

Our concern about proposing a tax increase as part of the initial proposal is that without the constitutional protection of the basic education definition the money would just be “supplanted.” This means “spent on something else,” which has been the history of school funding for decades. In the budget Governor Gregoire proposed education funding (outside the basic ed definition) was cut about 5% and other areas were cut closer to 20% or more. It will get worse as we get more news on the revenue forecast front. Imagine new tax revenue becoming available without a mandate for how it would be spent — it would go to the areas with the greatest cuts. Working out the expenditure plan first is the key element of our proposal.

We are open to having a discussion about additional revenue. Our initial thought was that we could fund our proposal by taking a larger share of the natural growth of the state budget. The economic downturn has made this not a viable strategy. We are not ready to have this conversation, though I will be happy to be at the table when we do. I do not intend to put in place a new set of requirements on local school districts without the funding to pay for them. Changing the basic education definition puts the requirement on the state, not on local districts.

Changes to the Salary Structure

In HB 1410 we propose a new salary structure for new teachers, not a change to the existing SAM for existing teachers. New teachers are ones who have not yet been hired. Existing teachers should have the option to switch to the new system. We believe that the new system will be financially attractive enough that almost all teachers will switch over in the next 10 years, at which point we may be able to end the existing system. We may not, and we are very open to discussing this point.

There are some changes for existing teachers, and I believe they will be positive financially for all of you. If not, it’s hard to imagine why we would want to do it.

Regional COLA. We propose a regional adjustment to salaries based on a comparable wage survey. The preliminary analysis we did for Washington Learns and for this task force leads me to believe the difference would be around 28% in the highest cost labor markets — the central Puget Sound region. Our intent is to have this replace a component of TRI pay. The amount of TRI pay by district correlates most closely with the regional cost of living analysis, but is pretty unevenly distributed. We believe we should compensate teachers for the cost of living, and that this would be a fairer and more transparent way of doing so.

10 LID days. It’s not only districts with large amounts of local revenue that need planning and professional development time. Again, switching this cost responsibility to the state improves fairness.

Mentoring and Evaluation. Our proposal creates an extensive mentoring and evaluation system for new teachers. The system would be run by our professional teachers (you) because there is nobody else with the knowledge and experience to do this. The system proposes significant extra compensation for teachers in the current system for taking on this responsibility.

More instructional time. The model provides a significant increase in the amount of instructional time. This means more teachers, and more compensation to teachers who work more time.
* Additional school-wide bonus for academic growth. We propose a bonus going to schools that meet their academic growth goals. This would be large enough to get your attention, but would not replace the need for competitive base compensation.

Wrong Time?

I’m hearing a lot of comments that this is the “wrong time” to be working on structural changes to school funding. I’ve been working on this project for 6 years, through both lean and fatter times. The question I would ask is “If not now, when?” We are going through a very lean time now, and when we come out of this recession we will resume economic growth. It would be good to have a better structural foundation to start from at that point.

Big changes in school funding always come out of crises. This was true of the last one in the seventies — a double levy failure in Seattle. I believe we’re facing a similar crisis with budget shortfall this year, and I want to come out of it in a stronger position, with a better plan, one that has public support and is difficult for future legislatures to change.


There have been some concerns that the accountability provisions in this bill are like No Child Left Behind — all accountability, no resources. This is not our intent. There are two main elements to this part of the proposal:

Transparency. Today school budgets are impenetrable. Our proposal makes both the state budget and the individual school budgets very clear and easy to understand. This is critical for parents and taxpayers — we should know what we’re getting from the district.

Persistent School Failure. Some schools, no matter the level of resources provided, will continue to be badly managed and will have negative outcomes for children. In cases where this goes on for more than a few years the state needs the authority to intervene. Exactly what that intervention will entail will be a major point of discussion this year, but our intent is that it look a lot like the focused assistance program we have now — helping schools get on a more productive path. Nobody expects this to affect more than a handful of schools in any given year and the state does not have the capacity or desire to directly administer schools.

’m sure there are other specific concerns about the bill, and I’ll try to address those as we move forward. We view this bill as a work in progress, and expect at least another year before all the kinks are worked out of it. The school funding system is very complex and needs a re-thinking. We believe this structure is the right way to start, and that it will be a significant improvement for all of us, most certainly including our teachers.


Basic Ed Finance Task Force does a press conference

Posted on January 27, 2009 by Ross

The “Big Six” legislators did a press conference about releasing our bills into the wild. It was a bit of a stumbling performance – none of us do these things regularly, but it seemed interesting to the crowd that was in Olympia to attend the hearings. I hear they filled two rooms in the Senate and had people out in the hall near the overflow room. Hopefully we’ll do the same thing in the House tomorrow.

Mikala Woodward did a much better job writing this up in her blog http://kiddewoodward.blogspot.com/2009/01/time-for-leap.html. Worth reading. She even has photos.


HB 1410 Introduced – Basic Ed Funding

Posted on January 20, 2009 by Ross

Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-47), Rep. Skip Priest (R-30), Rep. Glenn Anderson (R-5) and I released HB 1410 today. We have 38 co-sponsors at this point. It’s scheduled for a hearing next week. The bill is a huge effort – 110 pages that completely re-write school funding formulas, teacher compensation plans, and almost everything else about how we fund schools. The Senate companion bill will be introduced tomorrow, and should be identical. Click here for official bill information.

We expect there will be many amendments, but we’re announcing our first big one at the hearing next week. In reaction to a series of studies on the achievement gap between white kids and kids from a variety of other ethnic groups we found some common themes, and want to start the work with help with outreach to parents and the community, improvements in the preparation of teachers to deal with diverse classrooms (something we hear about from young teachers all the time) and quicker routes for bilingual adults from immigrant communities to enter the teaching force. We have so few teachers in many language groups that we should work hard to attract more, and growing our own seems like the most effective strategy.

We’ve published a few documents to help explain the bill. Most readable is our 4 page intro pamphlet. Next is the 17-page outline of the bill’s changes to law, section by section. We’ll add more as we develop them.


Basic education funding task force releases final report to the Legislature

Posted on January 14, 2009 by Ross

Ed system overhaul would include changes to teacher pay, additional class time

For immediate release – January 14, 2009

The task force that spent nearly two years reviewing Washington’s definition of “basic education” and the funding structure to support it has released its final recommendations for an overhaul of the state’s K-12 funding system.

The task force’s proposals start with a new definition of “basic education,” a definition that encompasses the state’s legal and constitutional obligation to fund kindergarten through 12th grade. The new definition takes a “start with the end goal in mind” approach that links graduation requirements with the program of education necessary for children to have a viable opportunity to meet those requirements, and gain an education that helps them be college or work ready.

“The new definition of basic education ties our expectations for our children to expectations for funding,” commented Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, one of the legislators serving on the task force. “This is probably the most significant change and will affect school funding decisions for decades.”

The report goes on to recommend that the Legislature move from a finance system based on funding levels to one based on service levels. In other words, instead of deciding to send a district $1 million for class size reduction (a number that doesn’t say much about how many students-per-class that translates to), legislators would decide to fund 25 students per teacher.

The task force recommends that the Legislature:

· Eliminate increases in teacher pay for obtaining degrees and instead reward teachers for earning certification and demonstrate competence through a new peer evaluation system;

· Create a comprehensive mentoring program for new teachers;

· Provide bonuses to schools that demonstrate growth in academic achievement;

· Address district inequities by eliminating grandfathered salary differences and various levy lids;

· Address the persistent achievement gap by providing resources so disadvantaged children will receive significantly more instructional time to help them catch up;

· Increase accountability by requiring districts to use common accounting and student information systems to be provided by the state; and

· Include early learning for at-risk students in the definition of basic education.

This report is an extremely important step in finally creating a clear direction for education funding in our state,” said Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, who served on the two-year task force. “For too long the Legislature has failed to fund the fundamentals of education – special education, transportation costs, equitable salaries and books. This report focuses on funding our schools to match the reality of today’s classrooms, special needs in each district and preparing students for the competitive global marketplace. I am also incredibly proud that our task force recommended enhanced early learning opportunities for low-income students. This will help ensure all students have an equal shot at success, regardless of their backgrounds or the career paths they choose.”

Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, says it’s now up to the Legislature to take action. “The charge of this task force was enormous – redefine basic education and rewrite the way we fund it to guarantee we fulfill our promise to every child in this state. We delivered. Our proposal will make substantive improvements in our schools, in our classrooms, for our children. Now it’s up to the Legislature to turn these recommendations into reality.”

The full report can be found online here. Legislators have also prepared a summary that can be found online here. The Legislature will ultimately have to approve any of the recommended changes.

The 2009 legislative session began January 12 and is scheduled to run 105 consecutive days.


2009 Legislative Agenda

Posted on December 30, 2008 by Ross

This year will be particularly difficult due to the national economic disaster. Unlike the federal government, Washington is required to have a balanced budget. Our budget situation is dire, and will require dramatic measures.

I try to be organized about how I approach a legislative session, particularly one as difficult as this is likely to be. It’s easy to lose track of where you are and what you want to get done. While there are lots of small items I’m working on, these five rise to the level of weekly review.

First, we have to deal with the budget problem. This is both a tactical problem of responding to the national economic disaster and a strategic opportunity to re-focus state government on what it’s good at and get it out of the business of things it’s not good at. This budget will be incredibly painful, and will hurt a lot of the people I came to Olympia to champion, but we will do what we have to do to have a sound financial footing for the state. We will come out with a leaner government focused very carefully on our priorities. We’ll prioritize the parts of the budget that are investments in the future like education, and we’ll try our best to preserve the safety net for the most vulnerable: seniors, at-risk kids, and those who are displaced by the crazy national economy through no fault of their own.

Second, we have to deal with one of the strategic priorities for the state: education funding. Our constitution is very clear that education is our paramount duty. I’ve been working with a bipartisan group of legislators for the last 18 months to pull together a plan that changes our current system from an opaque, confusing, overly complex and inadequate set of formulas to one that is much more transparent and simple — a system that clearly delineates what we need to fund and how we should do it. This will be my major policy effort this year.

Third, it’s not often that you get a chance to play an important role in one of the pivotal moments in American History. This year is one of those — America has the opportunity to shift our economy to be much less dependent on foreign oil and at the same time shift to an economy that doesn’t contribute to the global warming problem. States have a responsibility to be part of the solution. Washington will have an opportunity this year to be part of the Western Climate Initiative, a joint effort of the major states in the west and big chunks of Canada. Doing a “Cap and Trade” system right is an opportunity for major changes in energy use and climate change, but is also an opportunity for one of the biggest transfers of wealth from consumers to polluters in history if done wrong. Getting the details right on this is crucial, and I’ll be following it closely.

Fourth, we are in the middle of a set of transportation decisions that are crucial for our district: the 520 bridge plan, how tolling will work, the viaduct, and keeping the focus on 405 work. We have to make sure that decisions on the Seattle side don’t push up the costs (and thus the tolls) beyond what we can afford, and we need to get it done. Now that Sound Transit Phase 2 has been approved we need to make sure it makes sense for the Eastside. I’ll be pushing for them to start over here with the section from Bellevue to Redmond. This enables us to link up with the BNSF line north through Redmond, avoiding the difficult Kirkland route, and will help drive the redevelopment of the Bel-Red corridor. More on this in the next update.

Finally, there are a number of wonky tax policy efforts I’ve been working on for a few years that will come to fruition this year. It’s not an optimal time to make changes in the tax code, but we should do these anyway. As more and more of the products we buy become digital, the tax code needs to grow and change to reflect this and to maintain fairness across different means of distribution. I’ve spent 18 months leading a joint effort with the business community to change the tax policy here and expect to pass a relatively non-controversial bill this year, even though it’s a pretty big change


Initial Thoughts on the Budget

Posted on December 30, 2008 by Ross

At the time I write this the national economy is in free-fall, with banks and other businesses failing right and left. The car companies may be next. So far the two biggest employers in WA — Boeing and Microsoft — are still in good shape, but there are concerns if the overall economy is in a funk.

The federal government does not seem to have even the faintest connection between tax receipts and expenditures. They are spending a trillion here, a trillion there, everywhere a trillion. My calculator doesn’t go this high. With a trillion dollars you could give every high school student in America a full-ride four year scholarship, or you could pave the entire interstate highway system with gold. Someone actually figured this out.

Like both my family and yours, Washington state does not have this freedom. We have to balance our budget. The decline in consumer confidence has devastated our sales tax receipts, and the housing meltdown has had a huge impact on our real estate excise tax receipts.

The current forecast predicts a $5.1 billion difference between expected revenue and “planned” expenditures. What is included in the “planned” expenditures trend is open to lots of interpretation, so you will hear lots of different numbers around this. All of them are probably reasonable interpretations, and ALL show that we have a horrendous problem. We could have dealt with the $2-3 billion shortfall we expected with relatively little pain, but this much larger shortfall will require major surgery.

Washington does a 2-year budget, so the biennial numbers tend to mask important things. The budget in the second year of a biennium is usually larger than the first year. The forecast for the first year of the next biennium (fiscal year 2010) actually declines about 4.5% from the last year of the current biennium. This is not a common occurrence, and is significantly worse than the short recession we faced in 2001-2003.

Governor Gregoire’s budget proposes pretty drastic cuts in many key services. Overall I like her prioritization choices, though I’m unhappy about the level of cuts in some areas I care about a lot. (This is not unique to me – everyone hates their stuff to be cut and wants everyone else to take all the pain.) My biggest concern is that I fear she has understated the problem pretty significantly.

First, her budget assumes $1.1 billion in federal largess. I hope the federal governemnt realizes that the states can be part of the solution for the economic stimulus, but I worry about depending on a particular level of funding. If we get none, or if we don’t know how much we get we will have to cut another $1.1 billion. Second, there is an assumption of a change in the pension actuarial system that “discovers” $400 million in money we don’t need to contribute to the pension system. I was opposed to this change in 2003 and am opposed to it now. I think it adds significant risk in the out years that I don’t want us to take. Lastly, I think we need at least $1 billion in an “ending fund balance,” the money we leave in the bottom of our checking account if things don’t turn out how we plan. This is a judgment call, and I am very concerned on the downside.

We’ll look at all of this as we write our version of the budget, and we’ll benefit from knowing more about the federal intentions.

We will come out of this with a significantly leaner government. I hope that it will be one that tries to do fewer things well, rather than one that insists on doing many things poorly. I will work on this.


Basic Education Funding Task Force

Posted on December 13, 2008 by Ross

I’m a member of the Basic Education Financing Task Force (BEFTF,) a group appointed by the legislature and the governor to try to re-write how K-12 education is funded in Washington. This is the reason I originally ran for the legislature in 2002, and has been a very long term project for me. The current system is dysfunctional – it’s so complex that very few legislators actually understand it, increases in teacher salaries from Olympia cause huge financial problems for local districts, and the many small buckets of money require districts to spend a lot of time doing the accounting work to track where it goes. We are also dependent on local communities paying for large parts of what anyone would call a “basic education” instead of the state, who has the constitutional responsibility for this.

Last week the task force finished voting on a proposal that makes substantive changes in the system. These changes will still need to be adopted by the legislature, but I have hopes that this will happen in the 2009 session. I will spend most of my time this year (other than that spent on fixing our budget problem) working on the school funding proposal.

I give a talk on this topic that takes about 45 minutes, and I’m not going to repeat all of it in this post. There were 5 proposals to the task force, including one authored by six of the legislators on the task force. I was part of this group. You can read our proposal and a blog on this at www.whatittakesforkids.com. The final proposal from our group includes good ideas from most of the other proposals. Some of the key changes:

A new definition of “basic education” that focuses on what children need to know and be able to do, rather than a set of arcane formulas. We’ll still protect the state’s investment in education in troubled economic times, but tie it to the opportunity to get an education that prepares young people for gainful employment or higher education.

A “model schools” format for the budget, linking state expenditures to actual educational expenses. This changes the current abstract, obscure and confusing system into a single page spreadsheet that lists things like #periods in the day, class size, etc.

A new compensation system for new teachers (those hired after the system is put in place, plus those who opt in) that is based on a structured peer-review system based on current research about teaching effectiveness rather than the requirement to get higher and higher degrees. The system would also include a building-based bonus for educational achievement in individual schools. This would include test scores, graduation rates, and other broad-based measurements of student success.

All-day Kindergarten for all kids, plus an investment in early-learning opportunities for low-income, at-risk 3 and 4 year olds. All the economic research leads us to believe that this is one of the most leveraged investments we can make. We’ll offer Headstart for all eligible kids.

Changes in financial and academic accountability to make sure that we can really measure academic progress for all students in the state, including internet access for parents to all information about their children, regardless of the school they attend.

Our proposal phases in the new investments over the next 6 to 8 years, both to ensure effective use of the resources and to help our state budget adjust. When finished, all of the current basic education expenses paid for locally will be covered by the state, leaving local communities to pay for enhancements. Paying for this will be complex, and will require making real prioritization choices. We propose returning to 50% of the general fund budget from the current 41%. This would entail taking a larger share of the natural growth in the state budget over time. Given the crazy economic times we are now experiencing this may not be adequate and we may need to talk about additional revenue, but I want to wait and see what the budget looks like at the end of this session before I come to this conclusion. We will have to make decisions about what an effective investment in education is worth.

You’ll hear more about this from me as we go through this session.


End of R.H. Blog record