by: DAVE ROSS, KIRO Radio Host, MyNorthwest.com
One of Washington’s school districts is very much depending on the legislature to fix how we pay for education in Washington — Tukwila.
It has one of the most diverse group of students in the state — largely because the US State Department has been using Tukwila as a resettlement area for refugees — which they started doing without even notifying the district.
As a result, in a city of 20,000 people, which started off with 2,000 students, Tukwila saw the student population grow to 3,000 in just a few years. These are students who speak 80 different languages, some of whom had never attended school before. Some had never used a fork before.
School board director Mary Fertakis says the diversity has certainly brought benefits.
“I remember this teacher saying that she really didn’t need a textbook, because she had all the world religions in her class,” Fertakis said. “She had children who had been experiencing current events.”
“So for my own kids, they said it was very different to read about tragedy in Darfur and then be sitting next to someone who barely escaped from that country with the shirt on their back, talking about it,” she said.
And as for all those languages, Tukwila School Superintendent, Dr. Nancy Coogan told me how one grade school decided to improvise.
“In their cafeteria, they actually have pictures with names of what utensils are because they have never seen a spoon, or a fork or a toothbrush,” Coogan said.
But it also means Tukwila has to cover the cost of translation services, and additional social workers, and just getting the kids to the building.
“The federal law requires us to serve homeless students,” Coogan said. “It’s called the McKinney-Vento law. And we support the premise of it, which is that you would want to — in an unstable situation, a chaotic situation — help students stay in their school of origin when this is going on.”
“But there is no federal funding that is provided for that,” she said. “And the biggest expense for us is the transportation because we are required to provide it. Last year, that cost us about $350,000, because it is taxi cabs.”
That’s right — they have to send taxis to pick up and drop off homeless students. No additional money from the state is provided for that.
Tukwila homeless kids
Not to mention there are a lot of homeless kids in Tukwila.
“One of our schools is 24 percent homeless right now,” Coogan said. “That’s incredibly high. So the needs of those students, mixed in with the trauma that they bring to school, mixed in with lack of housing, it becomes a very complex situation.”
Desipte these unique factors, the amount of money Tukwila gets per student is typically less than districts with much smaller poverty rates, because of the way state money is allocated.
What most people don’t realize, and I certainly didn’t, is that the state uses a formula called the “staff mix” to allocate money to schools. The money is actually allocated not based on the needs of students, but based on the seniority and education level of the teachers.
School Board Director Mary Fertakis says that doesn’t make any sense to her.
“I couldn’t understand why, in the high-poverty classification of our district, we were getting less money for the same child in poverty … as the districts that surround us,” Fertakis said. “And I couldn’t understand why, with having a higher poverty rate than Seattle, we were getting less money per child.”
And in Tukwila’s case, the allocation formula has a perverse effect. Since school districts like Everett or Bellevue — which have far fewer refugee students and fewer low-income students — tend to attract more experienced teachers, they end up with more money per student than Tukwila, where the teachers tend to be younger. Even though Tukwila’s students need far more attention.
Director Fertakis says it’s a stacked deck.
“It’s just not fair,” Fertakis said. “Let’s just make it really simple. This is not fair. And it’s sending a message to kids that is wrong.”
What’s really frustrating is that it wasn’t always like this.
“Washington state actually used to have a student-need based formula in the 1970s, prior to the state salary schedule going into effect,” Fertakis said. “Since that time, our funding has been driven by teachers, as opposed to students and the need.”
Fertakis said what this teacher focus has done is frame the budgeting conversation. When the state gets education funding, “…the first question then is, ‘How many teachers does that buy?’ Instead of, ‘How many students does this serve?’” Fertakis said.
But Fertakis also said that despite the deck stacked against them, Tukwila has a pretty good graduation rate. And among homeless students in the district, the graduation rate is 75 percent.
One of those students reached out to Dr. Coogan on Facebook after receiving a scholarship to the University of Washington. She wanted to let her know she was moving into the dorms, and for the first time, she’d have her own bed.