Lawmakers Grappling With Differences Over Education
State budget negotiators locked horns Wednesday over the biggest dollar item of all: aid to education.
Lawmakers, meeting in the third day of their open-door negotiation session, sparred over everything from teacher salaries to how many planning days to authorize for teachers under the new education-reform law.
As with other topics the six HouseSenate negotiators are wading through, no decisions were made.
Some key differences emerged, though:
The two houses are $165 million apart on how much to pay the state’s 90,000 public-school teachers, including the benefit package. The Senate offers a 5 percent pay boost, costing $277 million, and fully funds health insurance. The House proposes a flat $100-a-month pay increase, costing taxpayers $199 million, and suggests teachers pay a collective $62 million more for their health coverage.
“We need to look at compensation as a package,” said Senate budget Chairwoman Nita Rinehart, D-Seattle.
Some teachers have gotten stepincreases but will have gone for three years without a cost-of-living increase, and shouldn’t see their pay gains eroded by co-payments for health care, she said.
House Majority Leader Dale Foreman, R-Wenatchee, and Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, said Republicans want to give teachers a raise, but believe all public employees should pay a portion of their insurance, as most other workers in the state do.
Democratic negotiators complained about a House plan to save $126 million by basing state aid on student attendance, rather than just enrollment. Districts could lose as much as 2.2 percent of their funds if average absenteeism topped seven days.
Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, said the plan could be an illegal cut in basic education, and would mean some districts couldn’t hire the number of new teachers they need.
But Republicans said reducing truancy and saving tax money at the same time is too good a combination to ignore. Besides, Rinehart proposed the scheme herself two years ago, they noted.
The three Democratic delegates made a strong pitch for restoring $53 million in cuts made by Republicans in the school-reform program the state recently launched. Republicans want to reduce the number of reform-planning days teachers have from four a year to two, saving $40 million.
Democrats also urged restoration of $8 million for the “Readiness to Learn” program.
The Republicans didn’t directly respond Wednesday. On Monday, Foreman said many of his members are skeptical of the reform program and are unconvinced that spending more money in this area will actually improve schools.
Republicans urged restoration of funds for 14 “skill centers” for dropouts and for vocational education.
All told, the House proposes spending $8.16 billion on K-12 education and the Senate $8.47 billion. The current appropriation is $7.78 billion.