No state cuts ahead, but Legislature again fails to fund education

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 23, 2014 

The Washington state legislature wrapped up its session in Olympia last week, and while we received some additional support, lawmakers are far away from meeting the Supreme Court's mandate to fully fund K-12 education. There are many uncertainties and funding challenges ahead for Bellingham Public Schools and schools around the county and state. The majority of our funding for schools comes from the state, while our local levies make up approximately 30 percent of our budget. We also receive some limited funding from the federal government and have an active Bellingham Public School Foundation.

First the good news for next school year: there were no major cuts in the state's education budget. The governor had framed this session as a "hold steady year," and we're always appreciative to make it through a session without cuts to the services we provide for children and families. Another bright spot is the designation of additional funding for school supplies and materials. This is an important step as we have set an ambitious and public goal to ensure that our students receive an education that covers all class fees, supplies and field trips that are part of the curriculum (this applies to "bell to bell" activities, not necessarily extra-curricular). With state support, achievement of this goal becomes more of a reality. Our strategic plan, The Bellingham Promise, calls upon all of us to ensure that all children are supported and loved. We can accomplish this by providing an equitable distribution of resources and services to ensure excellence for all.

The legislature has also targeted additional dollars to help reduce class size for our highest need elementary schools for kindergarten and first grade levels. Bellingham Public Schools invests in a strong early childhood (prenatal to third grade) program because of its powerful long-term return for our students and community; this is also called out in The Bellingham Promise.

Another change that will impact both our students and staff (though not for a few years) includes an increase in graduation requirements. The legislature decided to raise the number of credits required for graduation to 24 (from 20). The graduating class of 2019 (our current seventh graders) will be the first group of students affected. Meanwhile, beginning with the class of 2015, the culminating project is no longer a state graduation requirement. We are currently discussing what this will mean for our school district as the state previously removed its financial support for the culminating project.

Now for the challenges that lie ahead: when we look at the big picture, the state of Washington is still not fully funding education. This is very concerning for students, Bellingham Public Schools and school districts across the state. Currently, the state is funding only about 63 percent of what we spend. The Washington Supreme Court has ruled this unconstitutional; our constitution says the paramount duty of the state is to fully fund education. The state is obligated to do so by 2017-18 school year, but there is real concern about whether this will happen. According to the Supreme Court, the state has not made substantial progress toward this end.

Unfortunately, lawmakers also failed to agree on a supplemental capital budget this session, which means proposed bills to address classroom capacity issues associated with kindergarten and science labs were not put into law. However, it is encouraging that the capacity issue is now on the legislature's radar.

We're fortunate to live in Bellingham. This community highly values education and continues to provide additional resources for our students. Ideally, the state would show that same level of commitment. Education is a great investment to our community's long-term health, and it's Bellingham Public Schools' mission to care for and respect our students and to prepare them for success in the global community. Our goals, desires and expectations go beyond students - they are also of this community. Thank you for being a part of our collective commitment to support our students, staff and families.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greg Baker is the superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools.

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