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Published in Print: August 26, 2015, as Hard Choices Dog Washington State Lawmakers Over K-12 Aid

Wash. State Lawmakers Face Hard Choices on K-12 Finance

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Despite a $100,000 daily fine, it remained unclear as of late last week just how ready Washington state legislators are to develop a plan for education funding that will fulfill the dictates of the state's constitution to the satisfaction of the state Supreme Court.

Earlier this month, that court ruled that the state must pay the monetary penalty each day that it does not come up with a plan that, among other goals, would reduce the state's reliance on local taxes to pay for education, especially staff salaries, by 2018.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has said he would convene a special session of the state's legislature to vote on a plan before January, when the legislature's 2016 session begins—but only if there was a consensus from its education leaders to develop a plan to present in that session.

"The state and our kids deserve an answer, they deserve a step forward, they deserve a plan that will solve this problem," he told reporters last week.

Late last week, legislators from both parties planned to meet, but tension remained between legislators about the path forward.

"We have legislators who are talking about impeaching the supreme court rather than coming up with a plan," said Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat on the education committee. "The governor wants to know whether a majority of each caucus is on board with compliance rather than constitutional conflict."

The funding dilemma will not impact the start of the school year in the state, which begins this month in many districts. And even if the legislature does not comply with the court order until its next session starts, it would owe just $15 million in sanctions, a small fraction of the state's two-year $38 billion operating budget.

But education leaders say the unresolved issue has led to public frustration and leaves the state with a system that state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn describes as inequitable, with wealthier districts able to attract better teachers by paying higher salaries.

"It's a civil rights issue," Dorn said.

Ongoing Deadlock

It has been three years since the state's Supreme Court ruled, in a case known as McCleary v. State of Washington, that the state was failing to meet what its constitution calls its "paramount" duty: to amply fund K-12 education. And it's been a year since the court held the state in contempt for failing to develop a plan to pay for changes and failing to put in place plans lawmakers had already adopted.

State legislators made some progress in an extended legislative session earlier this year, adding $1.3 billion in education spending that went in part to pay for transportation and some reductions in class sizes.

But they came to an impasse over finding the money to reduce class sizes further and to assure that a smaller percentage of staff salaries come out of local budgets—changes Inslee says could cost an additional $3 billion every two years.

Democrats, Republicans, and the state education department each floated plans earlier this year to comply with the court's order to craft a new funding plan, but all proved politically contentious. One Democratic plan would have added a capital gains tax for Washington residents. A Republican senator's proposal would have increased the state's common schools levy while lowering property taxes. State lawmakers also considered setting teacher salaries themselves, a plan that has drawn the criticism of the Washington Education Association.

Dorn proposed a plan that calls for changes to the local levy system and would give the state until 2021 to meet the court's requirements. He said finding enough teachers and facilities to support smaller class sizes would take that long. Dorn said he was hopeful that legislators would at least start studying and working on a plan before the session starts again in January. "If they come in January, they'll never get it done," he said.

Will the Sanction Work?

In its August ruling, the state Supreme Court wrote that a "monetary sanction is appropriate to emphasize the cost to the children, indeed to all of the people of this state, for every day the State fails to adopt a full plan" by the end of the 2015 session. But, it said, the sanction is "less intrusive" than other possibilities, including determining a plan for school funding on behalf of the legislature.

The funds will be sent to an account reserved, broadly, for education. Such an account does not yet exist and would have to be created by the legislature. David Postman, a spokesman for Gov. Inslee, said that the state's Office of Financial Management will be tracking the fines in the meantime.

The court's action has triggered mixed reaction. State Sen. Matt Manweller, a Republican, said on Twitter that the court was "going rogue" and called for impeaching its justices. A conservative blogger described the battle between the judiciary and legislative branches as a "constitutional crisis."

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Meanwhile, Frank Ordway, the director of government relations for the League of Education Voters, an advocacy group in Washington state focused on education issues including school funding, said that the sanctions seemed more symbolic than anything else, given the size of the potential penalty in relation to the state's overall budget.

Still, Alan Burke, the executive director of the Washington State School Directors' Association, which represents local school boards, said association members are "cautiously optimistic" that the sanctions might push legislators to develop a plan sooner rather than later.

"Districts have been waiting a long time for an infusion of revenue from the McCleary case," Burke said. "The court is making a statement to the legislature that this needs to get going."

Vol. 35, Issue 02, Pages 15-16

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