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Rethinking Public School Funding: Back To A New Future.

February 12, 2015


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,


2015 constituent survey results: Follow the money

January 31, 2015

The good folks of our legislative district are engaged, educated and passionate about our state’s quality of life.  We have a 90% voter registration rate and, in a presidential year, a 90% voter turnout–consistently more than any other legislative district in Washington. In fact, given our district’s civic engagement, it’s hard not to enjoy the trivial and irrelevant point that in both 2014 and 2012 I received more votes than anyone else running for the Legislature in any seat statewide.  In appreciating our district, this year I’ve once again reached out with a comprehensive constituent survey to ask how folks are feeling about issues and ideas that matter on the front lines of life.  And this year once again I am deeply humbled by the profound sense of commitment to building us up as a community together.

As chair of the Finance committee, much of my work is focused around taxes and spending.

Here are the results of this year’s survey.








I also received literally more than 500 private comments about important issues, ideas and concerns impacting people in their lives today, and perspectives on how state government can more effectively serve our community.  I am choosing not to share those individual comments since many have personal concerns, but I will share with you how impactful the comments are about tough issues.  There is a genuine sense in our district that we can be so much more as a state than what we’ve become, and we can invest more effectively in public education and infrastructure to enable our children to enjoy a quality of life we’ve enjoyed.  Those blessings are under threat as we as a state fail to spend the public’s hard-earned tax dollars as effectively as possible but also express a lack of willingness statewide to invest sufficiently in public services.

We are all the government.  It is not some distant  entity, it is all of us.  Our representative democracy is under threat, however, by the influence of money.  We must make government more responsible, more connected to real people living real lives and more engaged in solving the right issues.  I am torn in that on some days I am angry at the bureaucracy for losing site of how hard the public works to earn tax dollars, and other times when I feel the public has lost site of the need to engage in civic issues in constructive ways that benefit all of us.  The juxtaposition of these views is probably inevitable and healthy, but they also point to the need for active civic engagement at all times.  Vigilance is the price of liberty!

I am so deeply honored to represent the people of our district and our state.  Serving as a part-time citizen legislator is not easy or for the faint of heart, but it is rewarding.

Please share your thoughts and insights as we move forward during the 2015 legislative session.  Comment here, email me at, follow me on @reuvencarlyle or ask to connect on Facebook.

Your partner in service,



























A repost of one of my first blog entries: Reflections

December 16, 2009

Below is one of my first blog entries from 2009.  I was reflecting on my seven years as a member of the Washington State House of Representatives recently and found it interesting to look back at how I viewed the work and challenges when I first assumed office in January 2009.

It’s simple and romantic but authentic from my core being.  I hope we as a state have the courage to tackle real issues together.  I hope you feel I have been effective at giving voice and leadership to real issues impacting real people.

This blog has become widely read by constituents and others, and I so appreciate the respect that you’ve shown by returning.

I will be reposting some of my favorite blog entries from the past seven years.

Here’s the post from 2009: 

Something powerful happens when political communities engage in a deeper level of dialogue about tough issues with topics that go to the core of a group’s identity and values.

When Nelson Mandela challenged his country to move beyond the pain of apartheid and be filled with grace, it was a defining moment in human history. The journey of great advocates for peace, change and reform will always filled with a central question of how to engage the people in a deeper dialogue.

The argument for courageous honesty about how government works, what type of systems we need to build, what efforts we should embrace as we stumble into the 21st Century may seem esoteric. But imagine for a moment if we had the courage to ask very, very tough questions about our state government in a politically safe way? Imagine if we had for a time a Renaissance Weekend attitude toward our political dialogue? Imagine if we rewarded those in the street and the boardroom who raised bold, systematic, thoughtful and important questions and did not judge them?

Here’s a specific example of someone tackling a tough issue, within a small community, that shows deep moral courage and honesty. Imagine how his colleagues feel? Imagine how hard it was for him to write this column? Imagine the impact of his words on the conscience of an organization?

On October 20 of this year Robert L. Bernstein, founder of Human Rights Watch, published this extrarordinary guest column in the New York Times.

The founder and 20-year chairman called his own organization to task for losing it’s own moral grounding. I admire that type of deep, meaningful conversation.

Let us find the courage ourselves, in our time and place, to elevate the level of dialogue in our state about the role, values, effectiveness and place of government.

Let us ask real questions and courageously talk without judgement or righteousness. Let us learn from the dialogue itself.

Systems change isn’t just about policies and programs. It is about courageous honesty to engage on a new level about our most pressing public challenges.  Here at home Democrats often are afraid of questioning the institutional grip of the status quo.  Republicans often are afraid of questioning the ideology that guides their party.  We need to break with the expected constraints on all sides in order to find paths forward together.

My great hope as a citizen legislator is that many of the meaningful conversations about systems reform so many of us have in private can come out in the light of day. Education, tax reform, budget choices, health care, housing, public safety, transportation, higher education access/affordability/quality, and more are all so much bigger than the small public dialogue we’ve allowed as a society.

Let’s find the courage together to elevate our own level of dialogue, in a gracious and transparent way, about the pressing issues of our day.  Let’s break with orthodoxy.

I would like to see a deeper dialogue about tomorrow.  I do not pretend to have every answer or approach, but I will strive to raise tough issues, focus on meaningful policy options and be open.  I hope you’ll join me.

We can be so much more than what we’ve become.

Your partner in service,


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