When the state Supreme Court ruled on the McCleary case, we all cheered. The state has a constitutional duty to fully fund public education--all right! So how is this going actually going to happen?
One budgeting strategy that has been widely floated is to "Fund Education First." That means to actually go ahead and write a separate budget that would fund public education, see how much it costs, and then with whatever is left, fund the rest of the state's needs.
Sounds good, right?
But fund education without simultaneous consideration of the wrap-around social services? It won't work. Here's just one example why not:
I spent a day in Olympia this week with a school bus driver and a few other people, speaking with our legislators. The bus driver has had a long and varied career: special needs transportation, different routes, services all over his school district.
The bus driver told the story of driving homeless students to school through the McKinney–Vento program. The federal McKinney-Vento Act is designed to provide assistance to youth who are homeless or awaiting foster care. One of the provisions of this act is that students who are in a disrupted housing situation because of homelessness must be transported to their original school. Yes, any stability we can provide these students, who are among our most vulnerable, is of course needed, and those involved are glad to be able to provide it. However, when the student is originally from one school district, and then must be transported to another, it makes for some very expensive rides. The bus driver shared some specific numbers, and I was really surprised by the total costs. These costs vary quite a bit from district to district, but even though the extra transportation is mandated, no extra funding is provided. It is a huge unfunded mandate, and the money ends up coming out of classrooms.
Clearly this is a complex funding issue, with both Washington state and federal components. When neither the state nor the feds pick up the bill, local districts are left to make do. So what about the "Fund Education First" idea? Do we fund education but not fund services like those supporting homeless youth? Makes no sense--the two are deeply intertwined. Education is the state's "Paramount Duty," according to our constitution. It must be fully funded. However, education doesn't happen in a vacuum, and putting together a fully funded education budget demands consideration of other factors affecting students' lives.