Majorities of likely 2024 Washington voters agree that the state’s schools are underfunded and concur that the Legislature has a responsibility to substantially increase school funding this session to prevent school closures and staff layoffs, the Northwest Progressive Institute’s most recent statewide survey has found.
55% of 874 voters interviewed from March 7th-8th said they agreed that Washington’s public schools are underfunded and we need to raise state revenue to fully fund them, while 35% disagreed and 10% were not sure.
59% of those surveyed subsequently said they agreed that the Legislature has an obligation to respond to the fiscal crises districts are currently facing by substantially increasing school funding this session to prevent school closures and staff layoffs. 36% disagreed and 5% said that they were not sure.
The Washington State Constitution declares that it is the state’s “paramount duty” to “amply provide” for the education of all youth residing within its borders.
These findings demonstrate that voters continue to understand this obligation and expect their elected representatives to as well. Yet the budgets currently under consideration in Washington’s statehouse fall far short of amply providing for our schools, which continue to grapple with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
With no help on the horizon, districts are preparing to make deep cuts.
The Bellevue School Board has voted to consolidate two elementary schools, which is a modified recommendation in respect to the district’s earlier plans of consolidation. Three board members voted yes and two abstained.
Earlier this year, the district proposed consolidating three elementary schools to save costs due to low enrollment, a trend expected to continue. The district is also faced with a $31 million shortfall for next year’s budget.
“In October 2022 it became clear that enrollment would not go back to pre-pandemic levels, as a result of lower birth rates, higher housing costs, more educational options for families including private schools, lower immigration levels, and families moving to more affordable areas. The impact of the drop in enrollment will hit the district’s financial position in the 2023–2024 school year. The magnitude of the situation serves as the rationale behind consolidation considerations,” interim superintendent Dr. Art Jarvis wrote on the district’s website on March 8th.
During a budget work session Tuesday night [February 28th], Seattle Public Schools announced some staff has been notified they may lose their jobs while addressing a critical budget deficit.
According to the district, its “structural deficit” has grown to $131 million. The fiscal year 2022–23 SPS budget is based on $82 million of one-time funding.
“This week…we’ve issued some notifications to employees about they’re being considered for ‘RIF’ and displacement so that is happening,” said Dr. Brent Jones, SPS superintendent.
“We’re in that phase right now.”
The district said the projected deficit was caused by a number of factors, including the expiration of one-time state and federal resources from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).
The Olympia School District joins with several districts across the state, forced to make budget cuts for the upcoming school year.
Olympia schools are facing an estimated $11.5 million shortfall. School board members say that difficult cuts are ahead.
Some of the cuts include reducing the para-educator staff by 26%, increasing class sizes for all students, and eliminating art teachers at each elementary school.
“I’m worried for my kids’ education,” says Romeo, an Olympia parent.
Parent, Sara, agrees. “It’s nerve-wracking when you hear about it for our kids.”
Other proposed cuts include reducing bus routes and bus monitors, eliminating several social workers, and possibly eliminating middle school sports.
These cuts will have negative ramifications for everyone: students, parents, teachers, education support professionals, and the wider community.
But they will nevertheless be imposed if Washington’s Democratic-run Legislature does not change course in the next few days.
Because of how Washington’s system of common schools is structured, with governance largely decentralized across 295 school districts, it’s easy to fall into the trap as a state elected official of thinking that school funding is primarily a local matter, especially given districts’ authority to set their own budgets.
But the Constitution is crystal clear: it’s not only a state responsibility, it’s the state’s most important responsibility. Its paramount duty, as mentioned.
The Legislature has a long and sorry history of failing to carry out the state’s sacred Article IX responsibility. That dereliction of duty is what led to the landmark McCleary lawsuit, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature was failing Washington’s kids. For several years, the Legislature pretty much ignored the Court’s ruling, causing the justices to hold the state in contempt.
Finally, during the 2017 session — the most recent year in which Republicans controlled the Senate — legislators adopted a so-called “McCleary fix” which belatedly addressed some of the longstanding problems with school funding in Washington — but definitely not all. The executive and legislative branches then urged the Supreme Court to dispose of the McCleary case, which it did in 2018.
Washington’s school funding issues have sadly persisted.
Though the Legislature has commendably levied a capital gains tax on the wealthy to direct additional funding to the Education Legacy Trust (an act the Supreme Court just upheld), it has not given our K‑12 public schools the resources they need to fulfill the state’s obligations to its youngest residents.
This is true not just in terms of operating support, but capital investments, too. One of Washington’s tiny rural school districts, Wahkiakum, is suing the state, in what is something of a sequel to McCleary. The district contends it shouldn’t be forced to come up with the funds to modernize its facilities on its own.
At regular intervals throughout the past seven years, NPI has been asking voters in Washington how they feel about school funding, and we have always found a majority in agreement that our schools are underfunded and that state revenue ought to be increased to fully fund them, even after the “McCleary fix.” Here’s our question, the most recent responses, and the responses going back to 2016:
QUESTION: Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement: Washington’s public schools are underfunded, and we need to raise state revenue to fully fund them?
- Agree: 55%
- Strongly agree: 38%
- Somewhat agree: 17%
- Disagree: 35%
- Somewhat disagree: 13%
- Strongly disagree: 22%
- Not sure: 10%
RESPONSES OVER TIME: 2016–2023
Asking the exact same question about school funding in our polls allows us to track public sentiment over time, but doesn’t allow us to offer up-to-date context, which is why we also posed this question to our respondents:
QUESTION: School districts across Washington say that they are facing fiscal crises due to declining enrollment, fallout from the pandemic, and the state’s ongoing failure to amply fund the education of all youth, even after the disposition of the McCleary court case. Districts like Bellevue and Seattle are looking at closing schools or laying off staff to address looming budget shortfalls. Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree that the Legislature has a responsibility to substantially increase school funding this session to prevent school closures and staff layoffs?
- Agree: 59%
- Strongly agree: 42%
- Somewhat agree: 17%
- Disagree: 36%
- Somewhat disagree: 12%
- Strongly disagree: 24%
- Not sure: 5%
Our survey of 874 likely 2024 Washington State voters was in the field from Tuesday, March 7th through Wednesday, March 8th, 2023.
The poll utilizes a blended methodology, with automated phone calls to landlines (50%) and online answers from cell phone only respondents (50%).
It was conducted by Public Policy Polling for the Northwest Progressive Institute, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.3% at the 95% confidence interval.
Last session, after NPI unveiled polling that showed that voters consider upgrading our seismically vulnerable school buildings to be a state responsibility, the Legislature unanimously passed a school seismic safety grant program and provided a modest chunk of funding in the capital budget to support it.
It was only a first step, but it nevertheless represented important progress.
This year’s capital budget — which is not yet final but is moving along in the legislative process — somehow has fewer dollars for the school seismic safety grant program than last year’s. Coupled with the insufficient levels of funding for districts in the operating budget, we are on the verge of going backwards on school funding in Washington State. That’s not what Washingtonians want.
Voters last year sent a message to Democratic legislative leaders, several of whom had publicly fretted about losing seats amidst the Republicans’ “red wave” narrative: we like what you’re doing and we want you to do more.
That’s why they sent larger — yes, larger — Democratic majorities to Olympia in a year when Republicans had delusions of repeating 1994 and winning majorities in both chambers. Our research, which anticipated a strong Democratic showing in legislative races, now finds that big majorities support a wealth tax on huge fortunes and a fully funded universal, no-cost school meals program, as well as the substantial increase for K‑12 schools discussed above.
Right now, the Legislature seems on the verge of failing to deliver any of that.
There’s still an opportunity for leadership. The session isn’t over yet and the budgets are not final. Our team implores the Legislature to listen to the voters. Don’t Sine Die and go home without taking care of Washington’s kids. Don’t force austerity measures on Washington’s K‑12 schools. Instead, work together to make the investments that our youth and their families need to succeed and thrive.