Fighting Disparity in Washington Schools

Davenport Schools Superintendent Jim Kowalkowski worries each time a teacher leaves his small, rural school district, located 35 miles outside of Spokane.

Jim Kowalkowski, Davenport School District Superintendent

He notes only three people applied for his most recent math teacher opening, and only one of them had the proper credentials. “It’s scary,” he said. “If we can get teachers to come, they tend to stay. But it’s hard to get them.”

It’s a growing problem for rural school systems, which account for the majority of state’s 295 school districts. Simply put, wealthier urban districts can pay teachers higher salaries. That fact, combined with a statewide teacher shortage, has hit rural districts especially hard.

“The implications are far-reaching. Research shows shortages can cause districts to hire teachers without proper qualifications; assign staff to teach courses outside their subject area; or not offer certain classes at all. “You depress the quality all the way around,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and professor emeritus at Stanford University.

Source: Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and Association of Washington School Principals, December 2016. (The results are from a survey of School Principals conducted in November 2016)

The disparity between urban and rural districts is even greater when you look at funding for school construction, classroom technology and professional development for teachers.

Why is there growing inequity? The state has underfunded education for decades. School districts have tried to fill the gap with local property tax levels. It’s generally been easier for urban areas with large property tax bases to raise money, compared to rural areas with limited development.

This is the basic problem Gov. Jay Inslee is trying to address in his proposed budget, which allocates nearly $4 billion in additional funding for public schools. Most of that money is aimed at leveling the playing field by boosting starting salaries for all districts to more than $54,000, along with requiring additional training, professional development and mentoring for teachers.

The state Supreme Court has ordered state lawmakers to fully fund public schools in this year’s budget, and address the disparity between districts.

“The journey to fully fund education in our state has been a lot like climbing a mountain. And we’ve been climbing together for a long, long time,” Inslee said during his inaugural address to the Legislature. “Now we’re almost there. We’ve added more than $4.6 billion for our schools. We’ve tackled issues like all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes in early grades and funding for student transportation and supplies. And now we’re at the final steps. We know what needs to get done and we know 2017 is the year to do it.”

Inslee’s budget is the first salvo in what will be a long debate in the Legislature this year. The Senate and House will release their proposals later in session and then all three sides will work to find a compromise.

The governor’s proposal has generated broad support in the education community, even in urban districts such as Everett, which has one of the highest teacher salaries in the state.

“The system we’re living under is so out of balance and so inconsistent, that his attempt to begin leveling the playing field and provide kids across the state an ample and equitable base of resources is a good one,” Everett Superintendent Gary Cohn said, calling the governor’s proposal “courageous, creative and robust.”

Research shows Inslee’s approach can work, Darling-Hammond said. “In the 1980s, Connecticut did something similar. They raised salaries to the highest in the country,” along with providing for increased standards, more professional development and mentoring, she said.

The move erased a teacher shortage and created a surplus of qualified candidates.

“Within 10 years, Connecticut zoomed up to be the number one state in the country in every subject area on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and was competitive with the top achieving countries in the world,” she said. “It has stayed near the top since.”

Zip Code Shouldn’t Matter

The Davenport School District is representative of how rural systems are often at a disadvantage when raising money to support schools.

The school district, with its 586 students, is located in the town of Davenport, a small wheat farming community off U.S Route 2, where the median household income is 22 percent below the state average. About 60 percent of the students receive free or reduced cost lunches.

The school district currently raises about $1.1 million a year — roughly 14 percent of its total operating budget — by levying a property tax rate of $4.12 per thousand. That means a homeowner with a $200,000 house pays $824 a year just to provide an additional $1,900 in funding per pupil.

By comparison, Seattle Schools, with a levy rate of $1.28 per thousand — roughly a quarter of Davenport’s — is able to raise $211 million and provide nearly $4,000 in additional funding per pupil.

The same situation holds true for capital levies that pay for building schools, buying new buses and putting computers in classrooms.

This kind of disparity has allowed wealthier districts to raise more money with lower tax rates and not only pay teachers more, but also put additional resources into areas such as technology, modern classrooms, counselors, coaches and the arts.

“The zip code of where a kid lives shouldn’t matter,” said Kowalkowski, who’s spent more than 30 years as a teacher and administrator in rural schools. “They should have the opportunity to get a really good education and be taught by really good teachers. I think that’s currently not always the case in the state because it comes down to funding.”

Teacher Noelle Casterns, far left, working with Davenport High School Students in food production class.

Davenport, for its part, is proud of what the district has been able to accomplish. The school has won statewide and national recognition for the performance of its schools.

“Being part of a rural school district, yes we’re smaller in size but we still want to give the kids the same opportunities,” said Noelle Casterns, who teaches career and technical classes. “We’re not only offering them a variety of Advanced Placement courses, but also agricultural courses and business and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).”

Feeling Beat Down

That effort comes at a price though.

Educators in small districts wear multiple hats and Davenport has teachers who teach six different subjects every day — which means prepping and planning for six different classes.

Then there are the college credit courses the system has added that require a substantial amount of training for teachers, much of it done outside of the regular school day. And the state has increased training teachers must undergo to earn a professional certification and retain their teaching credentials.

“Teachers feel pretty beat down,” by it all, Kowalkowski said.

The majority of teachers work really hard, he said, and there’s a lot of accountability built into the system in terms of state and local requirements and expectations, plus those of administrators, parents and other teachers.

Kowalkowski’s said he’ll sometimes ask students ‘hey do you want to be a teacher?’ and they’ll say ‘No. You have to put up with a lot of stuff and you don’t get paid much,’ ” he said.

The governor’s proposal, he said, would go a long way in a small district like Davenport. “The relief it would give us is tremendous,” he said, noting that much of the district’s property tax levy is used to fund basic things, such as busing kids to school and paying for utilities, insurance and building maintenance.

Inslee’s budget covers those costs and more, which frees up levy money that can be spent on providing an even better education for students, he said, such as purchasing laptops that students without computers can use at home, expanding after school programs and starting summer learning opportunities, including math and technology camps.

Chad Prewitt, Davenport’s high school principal, said the governor’s proposal also would help make teaching attractive as a profession again.

“No doubt in my mind that it’s the quality of the teacher in the kids’ classroom that makes a difference in their lives, and whether or not they are closing the achievement gap,” Prewitt said. “Rewarding them and giving us the ability to attract new people to the profession, people who have a passion to teach kids, is only going to benefit our system.”

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