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New Olympia political drama debuts March 23 when legislators reveal basic-education budgets

 


Olympia—A political thriller earns its debut March 23 at Olympia’s marble palladium when the Legislature’s leading producers-directors—Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina—take the stage to introduce their awaited and unreviewed drama they claim will keep their fellow political thespians out of jail and solve the constitutional quandary hovering over them: full funding for basic K-12 education.

The Washington State Supreme Court is holding those political actors accountable for a solution to its mandate issued last fall in the wake of unyielding inaction by the legislative body: fund education or be sentenced for contempt.

Hunter, who serves as House Appropriations Committee chairman, said the Legislature has to fund education in a way that eliminates the state’s dependence on local levies for basic education costs.

“We have about a $2.5 billion obligation and I think we should fund it in equal annual increments,” Hunter said. “While the governor’s budget is clever, it’s not a good strategy for implementation on the ground.”

Gov. Jay Inslee rolled out his budget for the 2015-2017 biennium last December, including a $3.6 billion education package, where he dedicates $1.3 billion for class-size reduction in K-3 and all-day kindergarten.

Hunter says he’s not fond of the governor’s education proposal because it would prioritize class-size reductions in grades K-3 for low-income school districts, within the second year of this biennium and in doing so would overwhelm those schools with too many new teachers they would need to hire.

Instead, Hunter recommends a statewide class-size reduction in grades K-3, rather than a sudden reduction in class size only for low-income school districts.

“We need to phase in spending in a way that let’s people hire teachers gradually so you don’t wind up with a school having a huge number of new teachers at once,” he said.

Hill, who leads the Senate Ways and Means Committee, agrees that the governor’s education budget phases in reforms too fast.

“I would argue that funding everything today this year is a huge shock to the state budget and the school districts because they would have to hire more teachers and put in new classrooms,” he said. “That’s good reason why you would phase this in over the next three years.”

Hill says it’s difficult to pinpoint a dollar amount needed to comply with the McCleary mandate because the number fluctuates depending on the interest group you talk to and programs included in the calculation.

Each committee leader and his respective party are preparing to unveil their education budget solution March 23.

Outside of the Legislature

With few available specifics about the House and Senate education-budget proposals, special interest groups hope that what the governor lacks in his budget would be addressed by the two chambers.

Rich Wood, spokesperson for Washington Education Association, which represents more than 86,000 members, including certificated teachers and classified staff in school districts throughout the state, said the governor’s education budget fell short of addressing class-size reductions in kindergarten through 12th grades and didn’t provide adequate compensation to attract and keep educators.

“Until the state begins to reduce class size, our class sizes are still going to be 47th in the nation,” he said. “Until the Legislature begins to seriously address the need for competitive professional compensation, our teachers’ pay is still going to be 42nd in the country.”

Randy Dorn, superintendent of Public Instruction for the state, says he expects the House budget to address what the governor’s budget didn’t fully address, specifically statewide compensation for all employees.

Dorn says the state cannot continue to rely on local levies to fund teachers’ salaries because levies are not uniform statewide and the courts have ruled in McCleary that levies are an unconstitutional way of funding basic education.

“Levies are so problematic because there are some districts that are at 36 percent and some are at 15 percent,” Dorn said. “It creates an unfair opportunity for kids.”

School boards are authorized to request local school funds through maintenance and operation levies for up to 36 percent of the total of districts’ state and federal revenues.

Because levy percentages vary statewide—depending on the property values within school districts—it can be a major cause of disparity in education standards and programs, Dorn cited.

Many school districts rely on levies as a funding source for basic-education programs, so this difference in levy percentages affects the amount of state and federal funding a school will get and as a result the programs the school district can provide.

Ben Rarick, executive director at the State Board of Education, says both the House and Senate budgets need to create a plan that addresses the use of local levies in basic-education funding.

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