In advance of next year's short legislative session, a state work group will recommend that lawmakers pump at least $5.6 billion -- through 2024 -- to help schools hire nurses, psychologists and other professionals who support students' social and emotional needs.
Since 2012, the Washington Legislature has added billions of dollars to the state's K-12 budget -- mostly in response to a Supreme Court order that they cover the full bill for running public schools here. The justices only lifted that order last year, after the state relieved the financial pressure on school districts, which increasingly relied on local property taxes to provide competitive salaries for teachers and other school staff.
Despite all the new money, though, some advocates still think Washington's school finance rules aren't doing their job. "It's not a system set up for children at all. The funding formula doesn't work for our kids, for any [nontraditional] kids," said Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition. "We have to start over."
So now, as lawmakers prepare to convene for a 60-day session in January, a state work group wants them to find several more billions of dollars to boost support for so-called enrichment staff -- the social workers, guidance counselors and other adults that help teachers focus on instruction, instead of the challenges that students bring into the classroom from their home lives.
"The needs of kids have changed, and in many cases they require more attention and have more things going on outside of the classroom that impact student learning," T.J. Kelly, chief financial officer for the state superintendent's office, said in a phone interview last week.
A brief history lesson: In 2014, as lawmakers struggled to satisfy the Supreme Court ruling in the landmark McCleary school-funding case, voters approved Initiative 1351. That ballot measure called for reducing class sizes and increasing enrichment staff, with implementation starting by September 2018.
But in 2015, lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee delayed the implementation of I-1351 for four years, bumping it to the 2022-23 school year. And then in 2017, a bipartisan budget deal included the creation of a state work group charged with reexamining how Washington funnels money into public schools and where enrichment staff fit into those finance formulas.
The work group has until Dec. 1 to submit its final report to the Legislature, which in even-numbered years is supposed to make small adjustments to the two-year state budget.
A draft copy of the work group's report shows it will recommend that lawmakers provide $500 million for the 2020-21 school year to start phasing in its recommended staffing levels for school counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, family engagement coordinators and campus safety.
Currently, schools get a fraction of the money it takes to fill those positions. A middle school, for example, needs to enroll at least 7,200 students before the state doles out enough money to hire a full-time nurse. (In reality, no Washington middle school hits that target.)
"Except for middle and high school counselors, none of these allocations have been adjusted since ... the 2011-12 school year," the draft report notes. "These initial values were based on research and analysis from the mid-1970s, without consideration for the evolving changes in student needs."
In total, the first phase of the work group's recommendations would cost $3 billion through the 2022-23 school year. A second phase -- which focuses on lowering class sizes, staff training and a boost in state spending for principals, librarians, teaching assistants and custodians -- would run through the 2025-26 school year and come with a $10.8 billion price tag.
For now, it's unclear how much traction -- if any -- these recommendations will gain during next year's short legislative session, especially as political attention turns to potential cuts to the state's transportation budget as a result of the measure to lower car-tab fees.
In a survey, 81% of all respondents said it was "very important" that the state invests more funding for school staff dedicated to the mental, social, emotional and behavioral health of students. Sixty-nine percent of respondents identified as either a teacher or other type of educator. And on Thursday, the powerful state teachers union released its legislative priorities for 2020, which includes expanded access to mental health services and other supports -- a priority it tied to school safety.
"We'll take this back to the Legislature this upcoming session and request some of the changes," state schools chief Chris Reykdal said in a statement about the work group's report. "But these recommendations really will be the backbone of our larger request next year during the long (2021) session."