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Legislators at odds on addressing basic education funding

OLYMPIA — While the budgets the House and Senate Democrats proposed this week were nearly identical, Senate Republicans believe the debate over education funding is a battle best fought next year.

The McCleary v. Washington decision in 2012 ruled that the state was not sufficiently funding basic education. According to education officials and lawmakers, the state needs to invest more than $5 billion into education by 2018.

The state Supreme Court ordered earlier this year that “the pace of progress must quicken” in regard to education funding.

In the Senate budget released last Monday, about $40 million would be allocated to fund technology-related materials in schools. The House version of the budget makes a $60 million investment in K-12 materials, supplies and operating costs. However, while the two budgets are similar, the House Democrats also included a plan to increase funding for education through House Bill 2792 and 2796.

The bills would fund education either by increasing revenue through tax changes or by allocating more money within the current supplemental budget.

“The supplemental budget—it’s not another bite at the apple,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond. “It sets us up for next year.”

The supplemental operating budget proposed in the Senate would add $96 million to the state’s $33.6 billion two-year operating budget approved last June. The budget passed last year added $1 billion to the state’s education system for the 2013-2015 biennium.

Carlyle’s HB 2796 would close four tax exemptions — including tax breaks for oil refineries and sales of bottled water — and would raise $100 million.

The increased revenue would be directed toward restoring cost-of-living adjustments for teachers and to fund early learning.

The bill is more modest than Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed list of eight tax breaks that aim to raise more than $200 million for education.

“The House budget goes further than the Senate’s in addressing our constitutional basic education obligations,” Inslee said in a written statement. “While I would like to see a bigger K-12 investment, it is significant that we all agree we must take additional action this year.”

Carlyle said the House took an aggressive approach in finding tax exemptions, but said the short session has its limitations.

“We could not come up, in this short legislative session, with $200 million,” Carlyle said.

The Senate budget passed off the floor on Thursday with a 41-8 bipartisan vote.

Other than the $40 million investment into materials, supplies and operating costs, the budget doesn’t provide any additional funding to the other areas of education mentioned in the court order.

“I’m disappointed with the budget proposals. Neither one comes close to the $400 million that is needed this biennium to keep us on track for full funding in 2018,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn. “If the Legislature can find a way to pass a revenue package and fund a cost-of-living adjustment for teachers, that will get us closer.”

The court called for more money to pay for existing reforms, including teacher cost-of-living adjustments, additional funding for schools, and a plan to fully fund basic education by April 30.

In addition to the reforms, the court called on legislators to address four areas of basic education: transportation, MSOCs (Materials, Supplies and Operating Costs), K-3 class-size reduction and full-day kindergarten.

“For the first time in five decades, the state of Washington is under court order that we’re not fulfilling our public responsibility to fully fund education,” said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “We’re facing pressure from the court and pressure from the public to invest in one million school kids.”

House Bill 2792 addresses all four areas indicated by the court. However, the bill has not had a hearing. It is unclear where the funds would be appropriated from and how much would be appropriated.

“New revenue is the only responsible way for us to address education and our children’s futures,” said Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island.

In contrast to the tax-loophole closures backed by many Democrats, a bipartisan bill would sell $700 million in bonds backed by lottery revenue to construct classrooms for full-day kindergarten and to help reduce K-3 class sizes.

Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union and the prime sponsor of HB 2797, said voters agreed that lottery funds should be used to help schools.

“This plan continues the good work we did on our current two-year budget by making capital investments that will put us in compliance with the McCleary ruling and our state constitution,” MacEwen said.

Despite efforts to draw revenue into education, the Legislature also struggled to maintain existing funding for schools in this session.

Senate Bill 5246, which modifies teacher and principal evaluations, failed to pass the Senate floor on Feb. 18.

Without modifications to evaluations, Washington’s federal No Child Left Behind waiver was put on “high-risk” status. According to state education officials, up to $44 million dollars in federal funding would be redirected from classrooms to outside tutoring services if the waiver is lost.

The bill would have required the use of statewide tests in teacher and principal evaluations, a step the federal government said was necessary for Washington to maintain its waiver.

According to Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, some school districts — like Seattle and Tacoma — could stand to lose as much as $2 million in the 2014-2015 school year.

Inslee met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan earlier last week to find a way for Washington to keep federal No Child Left Behind funding in schools. Inslee and Dorn are currently working on proposing a House bill that would give the state time to change its teacher and principal evaluations in order meet federal requirements.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said there was a bipartisan agreement to “decouple the education discussion from the budget discussion.” However, Ranker said Democrats will seek more funding for education before the session ends on March 13.

“The court was clear, we need to act,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell. “We have to act and fund those promises we made now.”

Elliot Suhr is a reporter with the WNPA News Service

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