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On a Sunday evening in mid-November, 15 people from Washington boarded a plane bound for Sacramento. They were an unusual group — a mix of activists, legislators, philanthropists, school officials and policy wonks — all assembled by Sharonne Navas, an equity warrior with little patience for ceremony when the topic is education.

For the next 48 hours, the group would receive a crash course on California’s recent efforts to overhaul school funding by channeling more money toward poorer students, and some hard lessons en route to that goal.

The timing was no accident. This year’s legislative session in Olympia, starting today, will be an 11th-hour culmination of the puzzle handed down to lawmakers by Washington’s highest court, which said in its 2012 McCleary decision that the state chronically underfunds public schools. By 2018, the court ruled, legislators need to find billions of new dollars for education.

Many onlookers see this moment as an unusual opportunity not only to increase overall investment in schools, but also to shift the way Washington allocates education funding. Simply injecting more money into a system that distributes it haphazardly, or inequitably, they point out, could deepen imbalances that already exist.

That concern is what inspired the Washingtonians’ trip to California in search of another model. Without one, resolving the McCleary school-funding lawsuit may answer the court’s mandate, but not the question of what to do about hundreds of thousands of kids who start out behind and remain there.

Consider a typical school day in Tukwila, just south of Seattle. The district educates some 3,000 children — many of them refugees — nearly 80 percent of them poor or low-income.

Every morning at 9:40 a.m., math teacher Katrina Dohn nudges students through exercises that might surprise an outsider. A third-grader doesn’t know how to write the numeral 7. A 10-year-old who has never been inside a school before is lashing out. Some of the kids will leave Dohn’s cozy office and head home later to sleep in tents.

None of these children is impaired. But all — due to poverty, homelessness or other significant disruptions — have serious deficits in their academic foundation. But they bear little resemblance to what happens each morning 25 miles away in Bothell, one of the cities in the Northshore School District, which has one-quarter the rate of student poverty yet can receive nearly 20 percent more state money per child to provide extra help.

Similar imbalances play out across the state, and though federal dollars help plug the hole, Washington’s vast and persistent gap in student outcomes — among the largest in the nation — suggests that kids who arrive at school with low skills are not getting what they need to catch up.

The Everett School District, for example, receives about $120 more from Olympia, per child, to teach English to nonnative students than Seattle Public Schools does, even though there is no particular difference in these students’ needs.

And in Wapato, Yakima County — where 83 percent of the children are poor — educators receive $213 less per student to stanch academic and language deficits than schools next door in wealthier West Valley.

In other words, there is often little logic to the ways state officials distribute money, and a patchwork of unintended consequences.

Take, for example, money to cover academic tutoring as well as English-language classes for nonnative speakers — aid that in both cases hinges not on student needs, but the seniority of their teachers.

It comes through a formula based around something known as the “staff mix,” a five-digit numeral reflecting the average experience and education level of teachers in any given district.

A place with more seasoned educators — like Everett — has a higher staff mix, and the higher the staff mix, the more state money per pupil for tutoring and English-language programs.

In theory, using the staff mix makes sense. More experienced teachers command higher salaries, which triggers more money from the state to cover their pay.

But because high-poverty districts, like Tukwila and Highline, tend to employ less experienced teachers, Washington’s formula actually directs money away from students with the greatest needs.

“It’s ridiculous — either inadvertently ridiculous, or deviously ridiculous,” said school-funding expert Bruce Baker, a widely honored professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University who describes such policies as “stealth inequities.” That is, poorly designed formulas which fail to correct, and sometimes reinforce, disparities between students.

“Washington perplexes me,” Baker said in an interview. “It’s a progressive state, at least by reputation. But it’s unexpectedly not good on school funding.”

Wide impact

The little discussed staff mix has powerful effects that reverberate well beyond learning-assistance programs.

For example, the amount of extra money districts can raise by taxing local homeowners is limited to a percentage of their budgets. So a higher staff mix means a district gets more money from the state to start with, allowing it to raise still more in a local levy than its lower-staff-mix neighbors.

Same with state aid for students with disabilities, which also hinge on a district’s basic allotment from Olympia.

“Through an equity lens, there are deficits every step of the way,” said Mary Fertakis, a Tukwila School Board member who has been lobbying legislators to consider a new model.

She is not alone. Democrats on the state’s Education Funding Task Force said last week that they want to nix the staff-mix factor entirely.

But from the perspective of the teachers union, any effort to rejigger state formulas distracts from the main goal: more money.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t care about equity,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association. “But fully funding education is what the state needs to focus on. Too many people are trying to make this discussion about other things.”

Ideally, noted a union lobbyist, the staff mix creates an incentive to hire experienced teachers, since districts know their higher salaries will be covered. But the reality is that educators with the most seniority gravitate toward districts that don’t present the challenges of teaching in high-poverty areas.

And so a vicious cycle takes hold: Low-income schools with less experienced teachers draw less state money to help mitigate problems, strapping those poor districts even further.

Federal anti-poverty programs even the numbers somewhat — to the degree that some poor districts actually receive more total dollars, on a per-pupil basis, than wealthier ones.

But those federal dollars are supposed to provide extra aid, not fill state holes — and Fertakis says they’re still not enough for schools filled with students who grow up in poverty.

Most other states build their school-funding systems by attaching different dollar amounts to different types of kids and their varying needs.

Olympia proceeds from a ratio: a certain number of children triggers payment for a certain number of teachers. The guiding concept was a wish for simplicity and transparency.

The approach was created in 2008 by a bipartisan group of legislators aiming to streamline a school-funding system few people understood.

Their answer: a plan known as “prototypical schools” that based budgeting on enrollment figures. Some extra money would be layered on top for high-poverty districts. But in general, a certain number of students results in a corresponding number of staff.

It seemed clean and clear and fair — meaning equal.

Yet in districts like Tukwila, where 80 percent of the kids are poor and 10 percent qualify as homeless, educators say their schools bear little resemblance to a “prototypical” anything.

“Prototypical in Bellevue is going to be very different than in Tukwila,” said Superintendent Nancy Coogan.

“Kids are not one size fits all, and we’ve got to stop basing everything on middle-class white America, because we are missing the mark and failing children miserably,” she said. “I don’t just mean in Tukwila. We need to look at all of this in a very different manner.”

Different model

What Navas discovered was that most states use some version of what’s called a “weighted-student” model that ties different dollar amounts to different types of kids.

Texas, for example, has 16 formulas — including money for students who are pregnant, or those with parents serving in the military.

Massachusetts, which posts the best school outcomes in the country, has been using a similar model for two decades, though the correlation between student-based budgeting and academic success is indirect, at best.

In 2013, California switched to a weighted-student approach — “equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice,” observed the teachers union there — and now channels up to 53 percent more money toward high-needs kids.

That fact prompted the fall trip to Sacramento — paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Raikes foundations — which included Navas and Fertakis. (Disclosure: The Gates Foundation provides funding for The Seattle Times Education Lab project.)

State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, who represents South Seattle, was there, too. The prevailing mantra — “just fund education” — makes him nervous.

“People get upset when I say this, but we’ve taken the same approach for a long time, and I haven’t seen much progress for the kids that struggle, the ones that drop out,” Pettigrew said. “In California, people are really thinking about equity. It’s driving the change there, and that’s just huge.”

Not that the Golden State has cracked the code. It took several attempts, including a new income tax for the top 5 percent of earners, before the teachers union signed on.

“The rubber’s going to hit the road this spring when student outcomes are measured and reported,” said Liz Guillen, an attorney with the legal group Public Advocates, which lobbied for the California law but has already filed a complaint alleging the new money is going only toward salaries — not new programs, as intended.

“Accountability is huge in this endeavor,” Guillen said. “It cannot be taken lightly.”

First things first

Before Washington legislators even consider moving money around, they must first determine how much more the McCleary ruling requires them to spend.

“Working with the same amount of money and just shifting it around differently will not work — I know that for sure,” said Stephen Nielsen, a deputy superintendent in Seattle, who has spent decades studying the four-dimensional chess that is public-education funding.

Yet running beneath every discussion of dollars is the thornier question of fairness.

“My view on equity has evolved,” said Neil Strege, vice president of the pro-business think tank Washington Roundtable.

“Right now, we treat all students the same. But that sort of misses the fact that all kids do not start on a level playing field.”

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