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By Candice Richardson, The Seattle Medium
While public sentiment across the country has been split on the concept of schools reopening during the pandemic and its recent surges, the economic impact on school districts may mean the decision to send students back to school may be soon be taken out of parents’ hands. Education budgets have taken a huge hit due to COVID-19 and some schools are facing the reality of possibly closing for good.
“There is more need out there than budget,” says State Rep. Sharon Tamiko Santos, who chairs the House Education Committee and says lawmakers are working to address everything from unemployment to childcare during the pandemic, but that the education budget presents a particular dilemma.
“With 295 school districts, there are 295 unique circumstances facing each of those communities,” adds Santos. “It costs more to actually educate students in a remote environment.”
According to Education Week, those costs are largely due to professional development or hiring consultants to train teachers on how to teach students remotely, providing hardware such as laptops, iPads, cameras, and microphones to students, purchasing necessary software to more seamlessly deliver lessons, and more.
Considering that schools are typically funded based on enrollment, which, according to the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), has seen an average 3% drop in K-12 enrollment statewide and a 14% drop in kindergarten alone, the extra cost of remote learning is eliminating any savings districts might have had closing buildings during the pandemic.
According to Santos, the prototypical enrollment-based funding model isn’t a one-size fits all solution, and hasn’t been for some time.
From a state perspective, basic education allocations or EA are based on what the state believes is the typical sized elementary, middle, and high schools, plus the number of teachers per student. In addition, funds for education materials like books, operating costs for things like electricity, and other add-ons such as additional dollars if a district has more free or reduced lunch students than other districts also play a factor in the funding calculation formula. However, there is no state mandate for how school districts throughout the state allocate the funds once they receive them.
“Everyone thinks, ‘well we’re supposed to have X number of teachers or X number of counselors,’” states Santos. “Well, that’s the role of the school directors…once [the funds] gets to the school district, the school district does not have to pay attention to our funding model. And that’s the relationship between the state and the local districts that people misunderstand. These school districts are independent governments.”
Santos says that while the state can pass laws and establish policy on everything from curriculum to in-school discipline, state law recognizes how to spend state funding is purely the decision of the district in consultation with the community it serves. The issue is that over the years this has added to certain disparities in education equity across different communities according to a new report released by the Education Trust, an education civil rights group based in Washington. D.C.
For example, the report released this past November and titled “Right Direction, Miles to Go” stated that on average the state allocates 8% more funding to low-income districts than higher income districts, but once the district adjusts those funds according to students’ needs, the result is only a 1% difference in funding. The report also mentioned that Washington State’s low-income students were performing below their peers in 27 other states and that high schools were graduating different groups of students at significantly different rates meaning one in 7 Black students, one in 4 Native American students, and 3 in 20 Latino students did not make it to graduation in 2019.
These disparities have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic where students in low-income households are often struggling with basic internet access in a remote learning environment.
Once you factor in that the current enrollment funding model is also based on our country’s traditional agricultural-based timeline of 182 days, or 1,080 hours, of schooling (with summers off) to develop their calculations, the current funding model is even less tenable going into the 2021-2022 school year.
“We can no longer base our funding on hours and days, because frankly, it’s meaningless,” says Santos regarding the altered school schedules that have resulted from the pandemic.
While COVID-19 has exposed some flaws in education funding, it has also presented opportunities for future success. Remote learning has shed light on what educators refer to as Alternative Learning Experiences (ALE) where instruction is delivered outside the normal classroom schedule. As a result of the pandemic, many parents have increasingly decided to homeschool or enroll their children in long-term online-based curriculums. An ALE can also include an on-site learning program, such as an apprenticeship.
State Rep. Jesse Johnson has worked to help bring a pre-apprenticeship program to King County and his hometown of Federal Way. Facilitated by Career Connect Washington and modeled after the highly successful Regional Apprenticeship Pathways (RAP) program in the Marysville School District, the program is part of a South King County initiative to prepare high school graduates for the workforce and provide better paying jobs in the trades.
Last month, Governor Inslee included $500,000 in the state budget to be allocated for the program in King County with $250,000 distributed to Highline Career and Technical Education (CTE) and $250,000 to Federal Way Public Schools. The program, which is expected to start this fall and enroll up to 50-75 students, allows students to simultaneously take high school and college courses during their junior and senior years in order to earn their associates degree at the same time as their high school graduation. With this program students can earn their diploma and a trade industry certification after gaining hands-on experience in construction, carpentry, electrical, painting, and masonry in the Federal Way area.
“This program is to get students acclimated to different trades so they know what they want to go into after they graduate,” says Johnson, who hopes that students of color apply for the program.
“We’re looking to have community organizations that we trust refer students,” states Johnson. “We want this to be equitable and to get students that maybe don’t have the support at home to have a strong application to get into the program.”
Equity is also on Santos’ mind. She’s currently working on a bill that will provide certain non-academic support to supplement the needs of students.
“This is actually a bill that I’ve been trying to advance now for probably about four years,” says Santos, who states the bill was developed out of the recommendations of the Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee.
“We, as a committee, put forth our recommendations for what we’ve referred to as the integrated student support protocol. It’s a protocol that is based on districts conducting needs assessments, and driving out decisions, especially spending decisions,” Santos says.
Santos says the bill would allow districts to prioritize funding based on things like mental health and nutrition rather than traditional or evidence-based models like the overall reading comprehension level of students in the fourth grade.
“If a kid is dealing with trauma, and I guarantee you right now, there are a lot of kids dealing with trauma, then their mind is not able to necessarily focus as well on their academic targets,” states Santos. “So, my legislation says, break down the walls. Let’s give school districts what they really want. And the only thing we’ll ask them to do is to have a process that matches their decisions to the needs of their community.”