Ross Hunter’s open letter to teachers

February 18, 2009 at 12:46 am Leave a comment

With the flurry of information about HB 1410 and SB 5444 – particularly what it will mean for teachers – Ross Hunter (D-Medina) has posted an open letter to teachers on his blog. Here’s the full letter:

I’ve had a lot of questions from teachers on HB 1410 that seem to indicate some misunderstanding of our intent and I believe a misreading of the bill. 1410 is a serious attempt to address school funding inadequacies and the structural problems that have built up over 30 years since the last major revision. The worst structural problem affecting teachers is the legislature’s inability to give raises to teachers without bankrupting school districts. This occurs due to the interaction between TRI pay and the number of teachers local districts have to hire to meet even a weak definition of “basic education.” This is crazy, and not in the interest of anyone in the system, most particularly teachers.

Our seminal observation about the current system is that it’s resulted in a pretty serious decline in the relative competitiveness of teacher salaries over the last few decades. The stat I use with some frequency is that the SAT scores of students entering teaching programs at universities have declined 75 points over the last 25-30 years. The number is national, not specific to Washington, but is an indicator that we’re losing our attractiveness to the top students. This is a recipe for failure of the system, as we totally depend on teacher quality for any results. The first thing we MUST do is start with competitive teacher salaries. Our proposal includes a comparable wage survey of the labor markets in Washington, comparing teacher salaries to jobs that have similar educational and talent requirements.

Other issues have been raised in emails and letters from teachers. Below I’ve tried to address some of the more common questions.

There is no money in the bill – it’s just unfunded mandates!

We’ve taken a strategy of relying on the constitution’s protection for “basic education” funding as the core of our approach to increasing spending. In severe downturns the courts have ruled that “basic education” is immune from cuts, and the state must find a way to fund it. 1410 expands the definition of basic education to include the expenditures necessary to provide enough instructional time to meet the state’s graduation requirements, with adjustments to provide extra time for struggling students, those learning English, and special education, with a little early learning for at-risk kids thrown in. This is a very large expansion over our current definition. Our initial estimates have it costing as much as 40-60% more than we are spending today.

Our concern about proposing a tax increase as part of the initial proposal is that without the constitutional protection of the basic education definition the money would just be “supplanted.” This means “spent on something else,” which has been the history of school funding for decades. In the budget Governor Gregoire proposed education funding (outside the basic ed definition) was cut about 5% and other areas were cut closer to 20% or more. It will get worse as we get more news on the revenue forecast front. Imagine new tax revenue becoming available without a mandate for how it would be spent – it would go to the areas with the greatest cuts. Working out the expenditure plan first is the key element of our proposal.

We are open to having a discussion about additional revenue. Our initial thought was that we could fund our proposal by taking a larger share of the natural growth of the state budget. The economic downturn has made this not a viable strategy. We are not ready to have this conversation, though I will be happy to be at the table when we do. I do not intend to put in place a new set of requirements on local school districts without the funding to pay for them. Changing the basic education definition puts the requirement on the state, not on local districts.

Changes to the Salary Structure

In HB 1410 we propose a new salary structure for new teachers, not a change to the existing SAM for existing teachers. New teachers are ones who have not yet been hired. Existing teachers should have the option to switch to the new system. We believe that the new system will be financially attractive enough that almost all teachers will switch over in the next 10 years, at which point we may be able to end the existing system. We may not, and we are very open to discussing this point.

There are some changes for existing teachers, and I believe they will be positive financially for all of you. If not, it’s hard to imagine why we would want to do it.

· Regional COLA. We propose a regional adjustment to salaries based on a comparable wage survey. The preliminary analysis we did for Washington Learns and for this task force leads me to believe the difference would be around 28% in the highest cost labor markets – the central Puget Sound region. Our intent is to have this replace a component of TRI pay. The amount of TRI pay by district correlates most closely with the regional cost of living analysis, but is pretty unevenly distributed. We believe we should compensate teachers for the cost of living, and that this would be a fairer and more transparent way of doing so.

· 10 LID days. It’s not only districts with large amounts of local revenue that need planning and professional development time. Again, switching this cost responsibility to the state improves fairness.

· Mentoring and Evaluation. Our proposal creates an extensive mentoring and evaluation system for new teachers. The system would be run by our professional teachers (you) because there is nobody else with the knowledge and experience to do this. The system proposes significant extra compensation for teachers in the current system for taking on this responsibility.

· More instructional time. The model provides a significant increase in the amount of instructional time. This means more teachers, and more compensation to teachers who work more time.

· Additional school-wide bonus for academic growth. We propose a bonus going to schools that meet their academic growth goals. This would be large enough to get your attention, but would not replace the need for competitive base compensation.

Wrong Time?

I’m hearing a lot of comments that this is the “wrong time” to be working on structural changes to school funding. I’ve been working on this project for 6 years, through both lean and fatter times. The question I would ask is “If not now, when?” We are going through a very lean time now, and when we come out of this recession we will resume economic growth. It would be good to have a better structural foundation to start from at that point.

Big changes in school funding always come out of crises. This was true of the last one in the seventies – a double levy failure in Seattle. I believe we’re facing a similar crisis with budget shortfall this year, and I want to come out of it in a stronger position, with a better plan, one that has public support and is difficult for future legislatures to change.

Accountability

There have been some concerns that the accountability provisions in this bill are like No Child Left Behind – “all accountability, no resources.” This is not our intent. There are two main elements to this part of the proposal:

· Transparency. Today school budgets are impenetrable. Our proposal makes both the state budget and the individual school budgets very clear and easy to understand. This is critical for parents and taxpayers – we should know what we’re getting from the district.

· Persistent School Failure. Some schools, no matter the level of resources provided, will continue to be badly managed and will have negative outcomes for children. In cases where this goes on for more than a few years the state needs the authority to intervene. Exactly what that intervention will entail will be a major point of discussion this year, but our intent is that it look a lot like the focused assistance program we have now – helping schools get on a more productive path. Nobody expects this to affect more than a handful of schools in any given year and the state does not have the capacity or desire to directly administer schools.

I’m sure there are other specific concerns about the bill, and I’ll try to address those as we move forward. We view this bill as a work in progress, and expect at least another year before all the kinks are worked out of it. The school funding system is very complex and needs a re-thinking. We believe this structure is the right way to start, and that it will be a significant improvement for all of us, most certainly including our teachers.

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Entry filed under: News Updates.

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