Teachers, parents and legislators gather for school funding forum

Group discusses ways to fund education without reducing social services

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Two hundred educators and their allies turned out Saturday morning for a public school funding forum and rally at Roosevelt Elementary School in Vancouver. They told a panel of local legislators that they are worried about every aspect of their students’ educational needs after years of insufficient funding.

But if and when that problem finally gets solved, they stressed, wraparound services, both in and out of school — qualified special-needs professionals, homeless and mental health services, sufficient food and affordable shelter — must not suffer in order for the state Legislature to get in compliance with the law.

The Legislature has long been in contempt of court for failing to comply with a five-year-old state Supreme Court ruling that defined and demanded the full funding of K-12 education. Daily fines now total nearly $60 million.

“This is the year it has to happen,” said Kathy Gillespie, a member of the Vancouver Public Schools board of directors, emphasizing that students’ constitutional rights to a fully funded public education have been violated for years. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, agreed, saying that tensions between teachers hungry for full funding and school boards who can’t give it to them are misplaced; collective anger really belongs to a Legislature that hasn’t done its job, she said.

This session will be different, legislators promised. “You can have higher expectations this year,” Stonier said. Legislators are bargaining early and seriously, all agreed; they’re reaching across the aisle more than in previous sessions and the shared mantra appears to be: “Fund education first.”

“My goal is to get the Supreme Court out of my life,” Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said.

But be careful about what that really means, numerous teachers as well as Stonier cautioned. Fully funding education cannot mean yanking money from vital social services, they said.

“We know that hungry kids can’t learn. We know that kids dealing with mental health issues can’t learn,” education activist and volunteer Heather Lindstrom said.

Special student needs and “extreme student behaviors” are all on the rise in an age of “brand-new stresses and anxieties,” Evergreen Public Schools reading specialist Sara Douglas said.

“Anxiety’s impact on brain development … is extreme,” Douglas said.

Douglas said that also brings up the basic issue of teacher compensation. Teachers who aren’t fairly paid and supported as they take on such major demands won’t stay, she said.

Hiring, retaining and developing talented teachers was on everyone’s minds. Some said they’re worried about a proposal to open up classrooms to community members who aren’t certified as educators; Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said the point is “greater flexibility” in being able to bring in appropriate experts — in vocational fields, for example — that can supply what’s needed. “Another set of adults with another set of eyes” could be helpful, she said. Those adults wouldn’t replace certified teachers, she added.

But teacher Jenn Voeller of Evergreen Public Schools wondered if that simply adds up to paying two people to cover one classroom.

Several teachers who have earned top-level certifications and graduate degrees said they now worry that the appropriate compensation they worked so hard to attain could be in jeopardy if the Legislature rebalances teacher pay. And even if his own pay is “grandfathered,” nationally certified Washougal teacher Scott Rainey said he’s wondering if he’ll be able to boast to younger teaching prospects that they’ll get paid what they deserve.

Levy swapping

All across the state, Gillespie said, local voter-approved levies have been allowed to replace too much of the basic funding that’s supposed to come from Olympia. But while districts like Camas, Evergreen and Vancouver usually support those levies, Gillespie and others said poor rural districts don’t — and the result is widening inequity. One proposed answer is statewide “levy swapping,” which Rivers said would help level the playing field. But Gillespie said that continues to rely on residents taxing themselves rather than the state doing its job.

Stonier said the state should look to raise more revenue. Heather Lindberg, an education activist who ran for the Vancouver School Board in 2015, said the state’s tax code is “completely upside down” in making the poor pay a greater percentage of their income than the wealthy. (A 2015 study by the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that Washington state has “by far” the most regressive tax system in the nation, with poor residents paying nearly 17 percent of family income while the wealthiest pay 2.4 percent.)

“Fixing that would fix everything,” she said.