Issues at the Core of Washington State’s School Funding Dilemma

A declining state priority. Increased student needs.
Rising costs. Unfunded requirements.

These core issues are causing countless school districts across Washington to experience a financial crisis. The state of Washington is constitutionally responsible for fully funding the costs of basic education but even after reforms (the McCleary “Solution”), the state’s efforts aren’t keeping up with actual expenses.

The state’s school funding formula is the core issue.

State leaders use a funding distribution “formula” that’s based on the needs of an “average school.” This one-size-fits-some solution for allocating state money to schools isn’t working because it doesn’t recognize the unique needs and costs of individual school districts with varying circumstances in all corners of the state.

The core issue

The state isn’t fulfilling its financial promise to fully fund basic public education, and communities are feeling the consequences of the funding shortfall with deep cuts to school district staff positions, programs, and services.

It’s time to fix these core issues.

School leaders, union representatives, parents, and community members are very worried about the growing gap between the funding that schools get from the state and what it actually costs to fully fund the basics of basic education.

The Core Issue

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The Core Issue

The state isn’t fulfilling its financial promise to fully fund basic public education, and communities are feeling the consequences of the funding shortfall with deep cuts to school district staff positions, programs, and services.

K-12 education is less of a priority since the McCleary “Solution”

K-12 education is less of a priority since the McCleary “Solution”

In 2019 52.4% of the state budget was allocated to K-12 Education while in 2024, the state budget allocation dropped to 43.1%

Washington State’s Operating Budget Over Time

A Smaller Piece of the Pie for K-12

Washington ranks well below the national average for investment in K-12 education as a percentage of Gross State Product (the state’s output) at 3.11%.

As Washington State’s operating budget has increased, the percentage dedicated to funding K-12 education has not kept up. Five years ago, about 52.4% of the state’s general fund budget was dedicated to K-12 education. Now, it’s down to about 43.1%, even though it is the state’s constitutional responsibility to provide adequate funding to support basic education services.

Three major factors have taken big bites out of school district budgets across the state:

1

Student Needs

Growing Student Support Needs

According to a state auditor’s report in 2021, even before the start of the pandemic, Washington students experienced mental health disorders at a higher rate than national averages. The disruption and social isolation of the pandemic only made the problem more intense. Teachers also report that they are seeing more challenging behaviors, especially in younger students.

School districts used temporary federal relief funding to fill the gap between actual student needs and what the state funds for counselors, school nurses and psychologists, academic recovery and prevention programs, and more.

In the 2022-23 school year, Educational Service Districts (ESDs) used federal relief funds to successfully help 96 schools across the state to address existing and escalating student behavioral issues. As a result, these schools saw huge decreases in behavioral incidents, including suspensions (70% decrease), physical fighting (78% decrease), and arrests (80% decrease), but this progress may be fleeting.

The temporary federal funding ends in the 23-24 school year. School districts can no longer rely on these funds to offer the academic, social, and behavioral supports our students still require.

The state’s current approach to behavioral health in schools lacks the resources needed to adequately identify and refer students to needed services.

– 2021 State Performance Audit of K-12 Student Behavioral Health in Washington

2

Special Education

Insufficient Special Education Funding

Special Education is an important and necessary support for our most vulnerable students, and it is a state and federal requirement. However, the state puts a cap on the percentage of students in a district covered by state and federal special education funding. This cap means that some districts with a high percentage of students who qualify for special education have to use local levy funds–which are supposed to fund “enrichment”–to cover the extra expense.

Although the Legislature raised the funding cap to 16% this year, that increase amounts to an investment of only $19.6 million for 2024-25. In the 2022-23 school year, special education expenses that were unfunded amounted to $529.8 million.

19% Funded Locally ($529.8 million)

Special Education Funding Gap 2022-23 school year.

3

Rising Costs

Much Higher Operating Costs

The price of the things that schools need to support students has skyrocketed, but the money schools get from the state isn’t even close to catching up. Everything is more expensive–from something as important as staff salaries to something as small as a carton of milk. Among many other operational expenses, schools must update curriculum, carry insurance, pay for product licenses, fuel buses, and heat buildings.

Rising operating costs have a big impact on overall school district budgets.

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Average salary increase for teachers since 2018
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Average increase in the cost of milk since 2018
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Average increase in the cost of diesel fuel since 2018
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Average increase in electricity costs since 2018
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Average increase in the cost of insurance since 2020
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It’s time to fix the core issue.

Education leaders are urging lawmakers to restore the state’s investment in K-12 education and align state resources with the actual needs and expenses of school districts.

Even after some investments in K-12 in the 2024 Legislative Session, the state of Washington continues to fall short of its paramount, constitutional duty to fully fund basic K-12 education.

Short-term support needed from the state now:

  • Fully fund the actual costs of special education & student support needs.
  • Increase funding allocations for materials, supplies, insurance, and other school operating expenses to match actual, rising costs.
  • Increase funding for transportation to align with actual, rising costs.

Long-term solution:

Reexamine the McCleary “Solution” to fix some of the structural issues and develop a school funding mechanism that recognizes the unique needs and differences of Washington’s 295 school districts. One size does not fit all.

The underfunding of education through an insufficient funding model is hurting our schools, our students, our communities, and ultimately our state’s future.

Learn more about what’s happening across the state

How to Get Involved

To find the legislators for your district, enter your address into the state’s Find My District online tool, or call 1-800-562-6000.

WASA

Sponsored by the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA).