The life and death of a bill which would’ve split the Seattle school district


As the Legislature continues to nervously stare down both the McCleary State Supreme Court ruling to fully fund public k-12 education the and recently passed initiative I-1351 to reduce class sizes, several Seattle legislators proposed a controversial bill to deal with long-standing issues in city schools. Their solution? Split the Seattle school district.

The Origins

The prospect of such a bill had the Seattle education community up in arms. But to the relief of critics, the bill died and never made it to the House floor for a vote.

The legislation had previously seemed to be carrying momentum behind it. Towards the beginning of the legislative session, democratic representatives Eric Pettigrew and Sharon Tomiko Santos of the 37th legislative district co-sponsored house bill 2048, which would have required that any school districts be larger than 35,000 students be split in smaller separate districts by 2018. Seattle school district has close to 50,000 students.

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37)

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37)

In a joint statement Pettigrew and Santos called out the district for “failing” to produce better academic outcomes and opportunities for students and proclaimed that “something has to change for the students of South Seattle schools.”

Word about the bill had gotten out at that point, and representatives from the Seattle Council Parent Teacher & Student Association [PTSA], Seattle Public Schools [SPS], and others testified against the legislation at a February 10th education committee hearing. All who spoke were vehemently opposed to HB 2048. Seattle School Board Member Dr. Stephan Blanford called the bill “shocking,” adding that it would exacerbate pre-existing inequity in Seattle schools.

Outside of Olympia, members of the Seattle education community also felt blindsided. “Everyone was like ‘what?! where’s this coming from?’” said Erin Okuno, Executive Director of the South East Seattle Education Coalition.

Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37)

Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37)

Despite the opposition, the bill eventually made it out of the education committee and into Rules, where it experienced had a slow drawn out death, due to concerns of community stakeholders received by the committee chair Representative Frank Chopp (D-43).

But Representatives Santos and Pettigrew weren’t done yet, and tried to get provisos into the House Dems budget proposal which would’ve directed Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction [OSPI] to convene a task force to “develop a process for dividing school districts,” as well as orchestrate public input gathering sessions and a study of the implications of a theoretical district split, actions that were seemingly a tip of the hat to those who cried foul at the lack of community outreach prior to when the bill first manifested.

But while it appears even the provisos never made it into the budget proposal, the initial motivations behind the legislative push for a district split still linger on.

“We [Reps. Pettigrew & Santos] have for as long as we both have been in the legislature received hundreds of calls from student families, from community members, with concerns and complaints about the responsiveness of the SPS to the needs of students and the schools in our district,” said Representative Santos, adding south Seattle communities have been treated differently by the District in terms of attention and resources.

The issues of the achievement and opportunity gaps are widely acknowledged within Seattle education circles, along with the Seattle School District. SPS board member and representative of District V Dr. Blanford said that nobody is satisfied with the district’s achievement gap.

Opportunity and achievement gaps persist between racial demographics among Seattle’s student population, while some South Seattle schools underperform on state tests: the District’s judge of ‘progress,’ though the effectiveness of that measure of assessment is debatable. It should also be noted that many Southeast Seattle schools are showing positive trends. SPS board member Betty Patu, who represents District VII which includes Rainier Valley, cites success stories such as Rainier Beach High School which is seeing a huge leap in graduation and enrollment rates due to a new international baccalaureate program, in addition to several south end schools being among the “Schools of Distinction,” a title for institutions which have made steady progress on test scores.

But the achievement gap is persistent. The District’s annual report for the 2013-2014 school year reveals minor positive changes in achievement gaps between whites and “opportunity gap ethnicities” (i.e students of color). Over the years the achievement gap hasn’t changed much, though several subject areas show slight positive trends. In the 2013-2014 year only 56% of opportunity gap ethnicities in the 3rd and 8th grades were proficient in reading, while 46% of those same demographics were proficient in math in 2013-2014.

For white students, the proficiency rates in both categories have hovered in the mid eighties over the years, showcasing a deep disparity. Similarly, in the 2013-2014 SPS District scorecard the data shows that only 49% of EL students and 58% of opportunity gap ethnicities were graduating high school in four years.

Now add those outcomes with the fact the U.S. Department of Education is currently investigating the Seattle Public Schools’ disproportionate discipline rates skewed towards racial minorities, particularly black students.

Data/graphic from SPS 2013-2014 annual report

Data/graphic from SPS 2013-2014 annual report

The roots of these problems run deep. For Representatives Santos and Pettigrew, looking at the District bureaucracy is one step towards a solution. Santos said that she wanted to look at “whether or not we can drive [better] outcomes for these students by looking at different models of governance and organization [e.g a district split].”

On the other hand, many local education advocates point to the underfunding of public education in Washington as the root cause of many of the HB 2048’s co-sponsors’ concerns.

Eden Mack, Legislative Chair for the Seattle Council Parent Teacher Student Association [PTSA], said that while the Reps. Santos and Pettigrew are trying to address the very real frustration everyone (besides families) has with the unresponsive district bureaucracy, funding is the real culprit.

“The State has been essentially feeding our public school kids bread and water,” Eden Mack, Legislative Chair for the Seattle Council PTSA.

The Legislature is currently being held contempt by the State Supreme Court for not properly funding public education, a responsibility which is estimated to cost between 3.5 and 7 billion over a 2-year budget period. Many schools don’t have counselors or necessary textbooks as a result.

Currently the state funds 54% of the SPS general fund, with local city property tax levies making up the next biggest chunk at 25%. Federal grants and fundraising make up the rest.

Nationally the State ranks 40th in education funding per student, and has some of the largest class sizes in the nation.

“We need to spend the money on kids, on classroom teachers, on reducing class size … that’s where the action is, it’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s not in the re-creating [of] bureaucracy,” said Jonathan Knapp, President of the Seattle Education Association, a union which represents Seattle public school teachers.

Representative Santos believes that if state underfunding were the only problem, than all high schools in Seattle would see the same academic outcome challenges. “I’m focusing on the intra-district inequities,” she said. She has routinely cited a 2009 study that found correlations between large district size, low student socioeconomic status, and low student achievement when looking at Oregon school districts.

But some critics of the original bill called the research “anecdotal” and not enough to justify such a radical shift in SPS district structure.

Other studies have found a similar correlation, but the connections are always in combination with factors such as poverty and racism within educational institutions, which have been consistently identified as driving factors behind the achievement gap.

To Rita Greene, current King County NAACP Education Chair and long time education advocate in Rainier Beach, looking at re-organizing the school district to address its perceived monolithic nature isn’t completely absurd . “[Just more state] dollars can’t solve the problem,” said Greene.

Separate and Unequal

When HB 2048 was still breathing, concerns were also raised over the potential of creating two “separate & unequal” districts.

“[HB 2048] has earned the name ‘the apartheid bill’ from parents and teachers and students around Seattle for good reason,” said Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield High School teacher and outspoken critic of standardized testing.

Many assumed a north/south split would’ve occurred given Seattle’s hourglass-esc geographic layout. Both Representatives Santos and Pettigrew have repeatedly noted that the bill didn’t say explicitly where the split would occur, but geography wasn’t ruled out.

Critics of HB 2048 brought up potential issues with city property tax levies and unequal revenue streams for two theoretical districts. Currently, levies make up a quarter of SPS’s budget, and have the advantage of being able to draw from property on all ends of the Seattle wealth spectrum. Dr. Blanford noted that the district that got the downtown core or Queen Anne would reap the benefits of the areas’ high valued real estate.

Seattle also has some serious wealth and income disparities between races (as does the nation) and with North Seattle schools being significantly whiter than their South end counterparts, and Seattle’s minorities increasingly concentrated in the South end or outside the city proper, a economic and racial divide already exists. In 2008 the Seattle Times reported on the re-segregation of Seattle schools both racially and economically.

That divide is also reflected in community fundraising efforts. PTA fundraising efforts currently help fill budget gaps through bake sales and “black tie auctions”, money which can pay for anything from facilities maintenance to counselors and art programs. But only some neighborhoods can afford to subsidize the school system, usually the white ones.

“The issue of racial inequity in all of this is very, very real,” said Mack with the Seattle Council PTSA.

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 7.32.26 PM

Via the United Way of King County

“If we want to support schools that serve children of color more, let’s do this: let’s invest in multi-cultural curriculum and anti-racist and anti-biased training for teachers, let’s work on the disproportionate discipline problem,” Hagopian said, adding that the “punitive” standardized testing model of assessing students is also contributing to the racial disparities.

Meanwhile, as Republicans in the Senate balk in horror at the House Democrats proposal for a capital gains tax to help pay for k-12 education, Washington’s public education system limps along.

“The school system is struggling to actually meet the needs of children and families. And it’s been struggling for a long time,” said Mack.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s