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Teacher of the year: Time to change how we fund education

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, a teacher at Lincoln High School, who was named Washington State Teacher of the Year speaks to students at the school in Tacoma, Wash. (David Montesino/The News Tribune via AP)

Parents are quietly counting down the days before school starts while teachers and districts are negotiating salaries. Recently, Edmonds and Mukilteo teachers were guaranteed sizable increases. But what about Kent and Highline? Wasn’t the McCleary decision supposed to fix the state’s education funding problem?

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It’s more complicated than that, according to Nate Bowling, 2016 Teacher of the Year. Bowling teaches American Government at Lincoln High School in Tacoma. Despite a landmark court decision ordering the state to fully fund education, and years spent in the Legislature to find that money, the outcome is turning out to be lopsided. In fact, it echoes the complaints the state heard before the McCleary decision — wealthy districts afford better education, poorer districts struggle.

“There’s something pernicious that happened in the McCleary deal and if you think about the legislative session and it was a kind of dead of midnight negotiation with not a lot of transparency,” Bowling told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “What we’re seeing is districts like Bellevue and Edmonds, that have higher property values, are able to offer their teachers salaries. Our districts, which are further south, have lower property values, and also higher populations of students of color — like Kent, Highline, and Tacoma — are offering teachers 3.1 percent raises.”

Bowling said the problem is Washington state has created a competitive marketplace where effective teachers are attracted to places that will make them more money and where they are economically supported.

But wasn’t phase two of the McCleary decision clear about eliminating the ability to artificially inflate salaries? That was partially the point of the whole lawsuit.

Bowling explains that McCleary includes a salary adjustment based on the perceived cost of living where you are, which allows Edmonds teachers to get a 18 percent adjustment. Places like Kent and Highline may get an 18 percent bump, but some are getting 12 percent.

The problem is many teachers don’t live where they work. You may get a teacher who lives in Kent driving to Edmonds.

“We’re going to see strikes in the South Sound,” Bowling said. “Strikes only harm students. My students need to be in school. For many of my students, if they are not in school, they are missing meals. We know that some students are school-dependent for learning. They don’t have strong home support. But teachers can only make so much sacrifice.”

He said one of his friends, who is a first-year kindergarten teacher, is trying to find an apartment in Tacoma. She can afford $1,100 per month and she’s struggling.

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“I get frustrated, because I feel like we’re willing to make the investments in schools, but I feel like the policies being made in Olympia right now are not leading us to the outcomes that we need. The McCleary fix is not a fix.”

Bowling wants the Legislature to make a drastic, unpopular change where funding education is not based on property taxes.

“Funding education based on property taxes disadvantages low-income communities,” Bowling said.

Getting more educators — the people who’ve actually done the work — to run for office would also improve outcomes. That said, Bowling has no plans to run. He’s happy to back in the classroom, where he sees so much potential this year.

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