Putting Students First: Playing Second Fiddle to Finances, Teacher Contracts, Politics

February 2008

This article first appeared in the Seattle PI, February 29, 2008.

The Washington Assessment of Student Learning graduation requirement sends a strong message. At the Pacific School District in southwest Washington, educators get it.

They're not satisfied to teach in ways that work only for most students but leave others behind. They're working hard to ensure that all students succeed.

Pacific's educators have good ideas about what works to improve student performance. They want to keep closer track of what every student knows. They want to spend more one-on-one time with kids who struggle. They want to increase the hours and days that some kids spend in school. And they want to improve teachers' instructional skills.

But they keep bumping into barriers. Sure they'd like more money. But they also think they could do better with the money they now have were there not so many strings on it.

The above scenario is a composite of what we heard from the 66 educators we interviewed during our 3 1/2 year study of Washington's school finance system, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

We examined how schools are financed and how educators use the money they receive. We found that educators throughout the state know they must raise student performance. Some think they know how to do it. Others are not sure but want to test different ideas to see what works.

The problem is Washington's educators are constrained by barriers created by the state's ossified finance system, rigid union contracts and the tangle of local politics. Serving these institutional interests effectively impedes our educators from serving today's students' real needs.

One district official described the state's school finance system this way: "We live in two worlds. We're funded in a system that's time-based, that's student-count based, that's seat-time based. All of those things are the old system. It collides with high expectations for all kids, which requires a different service model, a different way of funding."

Several aspects of Washington's 30-year-old finance system are antiquated and inconsistent with current laws that demand improved performance.

In Washington, 70 percent of education revenues come from the state. Of this amount, about two-thirds are distributed with the "general apportionment" formula, which basically funds teachers, administrators and other staff based on district enrollment. This funding structure limits what is done in schools and classrooms. It fails to fund extra supports educators say some students need, including full-year classes, longer school days, all-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.

While other state and federal programs address some of these needs, many districts are forced to rely on uncertain year-to-year grants and philanthropic funding to provide extra learning supports.

State policies limiting teacher salaries impose another straitjacket. To meet WASL performance demands, district leaders would like to use state funds to attract high-quality candidates, reward top teachers who agree to work in low-performing or high-poverty schools, pay more for teachers skilled in hard-to-staff subjects such as science and math or reward teachers who improve student performance.

Yet, as one educator noted, while other states offer signing bonuses or other salary incentives, "The only thing we can really sell is the great Northwest. And to people who have never been here, it's hard to sell."

When the state committed to standards-based accountability in 1993, it also promised big cuts in regulation. That didn't happen. As one state official told us, "The system has changed because of accountability. We've hung on to all the (Washington Administrative Codes) and still keep adding new dictates all the time." Another said, "Washington has more rules than any other state I know of."

Educators we talked with indicated that state rules limit class size, the length of teacher workdays and the use of planning time and stipulate course offerings and minimum hours per week for some subjects. Also, state regulations for certain funds limit how they can be spent and on which students.

Our interviews indicate that state rules and regulations get in the way of educators' efforts to adapt instruction to students' individual needs and also work against productivity by limiting innovation.

Teachers' union contracts also constrain how local resources get used in ways that at times obstruct efforts to improve student performance. While endorsing contract conditions that ensure fair treatment of teachers, educators also told us that contracts prevent them from taking steps they believe necessary to improve performance, such as lengthening class periods and school days and years, keeping students with the same teacher for multiple years and trading larger class sizes in non-core subjects for smaller classes in core subjects.

One state legislator discussed an extreme case of union influence: "In one of the school districts I represent ... they bargained out meeting with parents. ... The union essentially said, 'We don't want to meet with parents. It's too much work, it's very stressful, and so we don't want to do that anymore.' So they bargained it out."

Contract requirements regarding seniority rights and removal procedures frequently clash with the concept of providing "highly qualified" teachers in every classroom. As one principal noted, seniority provisions sometimes mean that the best teachers are sacrificed: "Some of my best teachers are my newest teachers, and they're the first ones who get cut when there's some sort of budget reduction."

Another principal commented on the difficulty of removing an ineffective teacher: "It takes so much time and effort from an administrator -- sitting in their classrooms on a weekly basis, (providing) written feedback, meeting with the teachers, meeting with the union reps -- to move a teacher out of the system, it takes a whole lot of time to do that."

To meet our commitments to children, Washington policymakers and educators need to figure out how to ensure fair treatment for teachers without sacrificing the needs of students. Under the policies in effect today, the system protects underperforming teachers and locks in strict working conditions that inhibit innovations at the expense of students. This makes no sense.

Education decisions have become so political that vested interests and community demands take center stage.

As one educator described this, "Common sense to me would say if we really were to prioritize our academic plan ... and say, 'We want all of our kids to learn how to read. We want all of our kids to have certain math skills ...' That's where we ought to be putting our resources.

"It's easy to predict that that would mean there are things we do now that would have to fall off the plate," he continued. "And we'd have to have the political will to say, 'We can't do that anymore.' And (there) undoubtedly would be things ... like music or athletics, the sacred cows of the American school culture."

Rarely do local decision makers end popular programs. Almost never do they consider innovations such as increasing class sizes (and salaries) for particularly effective teachers, making trade-offs between classroom-instruction and online or distance learning, or sharing administrative, transportation or other resources between districts.

Nothing in Washington's school finance system encourages or helps educators to think outside the box.

To the contrary, educators and administrators think the safest course (the one least likely to cause friction with the state and with local stakeholders) is to generally do things the way they've always been done. "The K-12 system is like a tanker," said one educator. "... You're not going to do anything fast with a tanker. ... You're dealing with so many people and so many ingrained methods, procedures, contracts. (Everything) gets in the way."

This study spotlights how our old finance system constrains educators' abilities to respond to new accountability pressures.

Without substantial changes to the finance system to better support local improvement efforts, Washington educators are unlikely to reach the goal of bringing all students up to standard.

Currently, student needs too often take the backseat because dollars are used in a complicated, opaque, inefficient and nonstrategic manner. This must change.

Washington's Basic Education Finance Joint Task Force, created by the 2007 Legislature on the heels of the Washington Learns final report, is charged with developing a unique, transparent and stable educational funding system that supports a world-class K-12 education system. We hope this task force, which is slated to provide recommendations for the 2009 Legislature, will move to change our education finance system to support, not prevent, actions that educators must take to reach the state's education goals.

To do that, the task force must challenge historical precedents, take on special interests and target resistance to change.

It's a matter of putting the needs of our students, our kids, first.