Reuven Carlyle: A Thought Filled Analysis of Education in WASTATE

Rethinking Public School Funding: Back To A New Future.


The Washington State Constitution crafted in 1889 includes these mighty words in Article IV, section 1:  “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.” This language is as unique as it is powerful.  We are the only state in the nation where our state constitution has this forceful paramount duty clause.  Our founders believed–and the common perception today–is that this strong state constitutional language directly translates into better educational quality and higher funding for our kids.

As chair of the Finance Committee grappling with funding of our state budget, I believe there is philosophical and policy value in raising the uncomfortable argument that our foundational premise may not, in fact, be true.

The state’s paramount duty clause was penned in the day of the one-room schoolhouse when we had a kindergarten through 8th grade system. The core purpose of Article IX was to establish state oversight of the system of hundreds of local school districts and to ensure good management of the public lands granted to the state by the federal government for the benefit of public schools. There is no question that framers of our state constitution thought this lucrative endowment would result in an unprecedented level of funding for common schools.

Since 1889 this philosophical assumption has not played out for real kids living real lives.

Today, early learning and higher education are more than ancillary, they are core to our desire to educate the whole child and whole person. We cannot have a system where “the paramount duty” is only K-12 and leave the other aspects of education as second class citizens. It doesn’t work for kids, parents, business or an educated civic society.

Washington is a “state” funded education system where most tax dollars are sent to Olympia to be distributed back to local schools and small local levies are intended for modest enhancements. The model has been so fractured, grandfathered, redesigned and reconfigured that it’s unrecognizable.

Our global challenge states—those with high quality of life that we aspire to compete with in constructive ways—have generally chosen to follow a different path through primarily locally funded school systems. The state’s role in those other states is to focus not on primary funding but on structural tax fairness and educational quality.

In our state, the romantic image of strong funding from the state government has not been realized. Political impasse over generations has created a system with unconstitutional funding structures, relatively poor student outcomes and great inequality.

A case can be made that Washington’s top-down approach disconnects schools from their natural, strongest base of support—local families and communities.

The paramount duty has not been fulfilled.

Many factors have contributed to the disjointed, ineffective tax and funding structure we have today, a structure that virtually guarantees inequitable access and outcomes. Unfortunately, longstanding political and social constructs bar meaningful progress. Nothing, over 40 years of legal battles where the State has been consistently been told to address the inadequate and inequitable system, has really changed.

We are so much more as a state than what we’ve become.

There are, in fact, other models that might deliver on the Paramount Duty in a more fulsome way than our top-down, centralized approach.

A new model would have to have some critical elements:

  • The State’s responsibility is to provide education at all levels. Operating and funding common schools is a fundamental duty of the State but shared with local districts. The State must ensure equity, taking into consideration each schools property values, student need and the cost of implementing the state’s definition of Basic Education.
  • General and Uniform-The State must provide for a system of public schools and must define a minimum program that all districts offer. The implementation duty is shared with local school districts, which are authorized to provide funding and programming beyond the foundational program established by the district base regular levy, the state equalization system, and state law establishing minimum program requirements.
  • State must require school districts to collect a base regular levy, the amount of which will vary per law based on property values and student needs.

There are states with both higher funding levels and educational quality outcomes that are worth a look. Here’s how they do it.


School funding in Massachusetts is meant to ensure that all school districts have enough resources to provide all students with a high-quality education, taking into account the ability of each local government to contribute financial resources. The formula directs more money to students who need it more and directs more money to districts that have a lower ability to provide local resources. The one, central job of the state government is to ensure equity for all its students through tax equity and thus ability to pay.

Step 1: Calculate district foundation budget

Multiply the number of students at each grade level and demographic group (Low-income, Special Education and more) by a series of education spending categories (Compensation, professional development, etc…).The total across all categories in summed and put into per-student terms. ELL, Special Education, and low-income students generate additional allocations.

Step 2: Required Local Contribution

Each municipality is required to contribute a defined amount in locally raised tax revenues. A uniform statewide percent of local property and state income tax is determined and each municipality must contribute that amount, at minimum, to public education.

Step 3: Fill in the gaps

The required local contribution is subtracted from the district foundation budget (Step 1). The state then pays the difference between those two amounts to the district to make their budget whole.

Step 4: Municipalities may contribute additional local support if they desire

The district budget determines the minimum amount needed to provide a high-quality education, but districts are able to raise local dollars beyond the foundation budget to enhance their local education system.

The state of Massachusetts pays for 42% of public education, while 51% comes from local sources.


Every student generates a base per-pupil allocation. This base allocation is further enhanced for students participating in the Free and Reduced Price meals program, the extended time program, and English language learner program. Additional funding is also provided through gifted students funding and alternative compensation revenue among others.

Alternative Revenue Compensation is additional money provided to districts that develop an alternative compensation model and get it approved by the state.

State covers about 60% of the cost of education with local revenues contributing 32% and federal sources contributing 8%.


The Foundation Program provides base per- student funding for public schools in Maryland, $6,694 in 2010. The state pays districts a certain portion of the Foundation Program amount with a minimum state contribution per student of $1,004 or 15% of the Foundation Program base. Districts are required to contribute the shortfall between the Foundation Program base amount and the actual state contribution. The amount of expected local contribution varies depending on the average per-student wealth of the district relative to the state average.

Additionally, the Foundation Program base amount varies across districts due to the Geographical Cost of Education Index. This index adjusts for variations in the cost of providing education across the state.

Districts receive additional enhancements for low-income, special education, and English language learner students. The enhancement for these categorical programs is dependent on the relative wealth of the district. Property poor districts receive a higher per-pupil categorical enhancement for these programs than property rich districts

Guaranteed Tax Base Formula – Additional enhancements are provided to districts that provide more local funding than is required by the state formula; this Guaranteed Tax Base formula gives greater enhancements to lower-income districts.

The state of Maryland pays for 42% of public education, while 51% comes from local sources.

Educational outcomes

The real point is to pursue a funding system that produces results for students. Washington ranks 30th in the nation in our high school graduation rate with 79% of incoming freshman graduating in four years. Minnesota ranks 7th in the nation at 88%; Massachusetts ranks 12th at 86%; Maryland ranks 16th at 84%.

The national average in 2011-2012 for per-student funding was $10,667. Washington came in below the average at $9,617 while Minnesota came in above at $10,781; Massachusetts at $14,844 and Maryland at $13,871.

Here is the data from each of these states in three areas (4th grade reading, high school graduation and post-secondary enrollment)

Subgroup WashingtonGrad Rate MassachusettsGrad Rate Maryland Grad Rate Minnesota Grad Rate
Black 68% 75% 81% 58%
Latino 67% 69% 78% 59%
Asian 87% 92% 95% 78%
White 81% 91% 92% 85%
Native American 54% 76% 87% 49%
ELL 54% 64% 54% 59%
Low-Income 66% 76% 78% 64%
Special Education 56% 69% 64% 58%
All Students 77% 86% 86% 80%

2013 NAEP Data

4th Grade Reading

Subgroup Washington Massachusetts Maryland Minnesota
Black 25% 21% 22% 21%
Latino 19% 20% 35% 23%
Asian 61% 56% 73% 44%
White 46% 57% 60% 47%
Low-Income 23% 25% 24% 23%
Non Low-Income 53% 62% 58% 52%
All Students 40% 48% 44% 41%

Postsecondary Attendance

Below is a chart showing the college going rate for students who graduate high school and enroll directly into a postsecondary institution

College Going Rate

  Washington Massachusetts Maryland Minnesota
2010 48% 73% 64% 71%

There is a clear, compelling and influential linkage between those states with locally-oriented education funding systems and both quality outcomes and higher funding levels.  It doesn’t mean they are right and we are wrong or there is only one answer.  It just opens the dialogue for us to put tough questions on the table about what type of modern, 21st Century educational finance system we want to build.

Ironically, perhaps we can implement the values of our state constitution to invest in public education more effectively by making a change to our constitution to reconnect our local dollars to local schools.

Perhaps we should use of the opportunity of the crisis—the McCleary lawsuit and public pressure to increase funding and improve outcomes—to reconsider our approach itself.

Your partner in service,


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  1. Roger Rabbit #

    Washington’s school funding structure is significant in multiple ways. In most states, school taxes are collected and spent at local levels, and the level of school funding can vary between school districts depending on how rich or poor the property taxpayers are. Washington’s funding system theoretically should equalize school funding through the state, but it doesn’t work out that way when school districts have to depend on local voter levies for up to 20% or 25% of their funding. Funneling the lion’s share of school taxes through state government also makes the state budget look bloated when it isn’t, creating voter resistance against spending that is normal in other states. Washington’s actual state budget is far smaller than it appears when the 45% that goes to K-12 education is taken out. This spending never appears in other states’ budgets, because it isn’t channeled through the state as in Washington. But our voters don’t understand that, they only see the headline number and think the state is spending wildly, when in fact the real state budget is only 55% of that number. This creates severe political problems for funding both schools and the normal functions of state government.