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Cash Backs Education Promises Locke And Lawmakers Add $200 Million To School Funding

Washington legislators and Gov. Gary Locke touted education as their No. 1 issue in last fall’s elections. Now they’ve backed up their campaign promises with some cash and concrete legislation.

At a time when spending growth is restrained by voter-approved Initiative 601, the Republican-controlled Legislature and the new Democratic governor added more than $200 million to current-level spending for education, not counting salary increases for teachers and college professors.

It was by far the largest increase in discretionary spending approved by lawmakers in the just-concluded session.

The state will spend about six out of every 10 tax dollars on public schools and colleges in the next two years, dwarfing other state programs. Further, the construction budget provides millions for school and college construction projects.

There are legal, political and policy reasons for the heavy commitment.

The state Constitution says providing education is the state’s “paramount” duty. The courts say that means the Legislature must define basic education and then pay for it.

The college system has no such constitutional protection, but it is popular with both parties, business and labor.

Polls conducted for The Associated Press and other media organizations last year found education the No. 1 issue for voters. AP poll respondents said they were willing to pay more and amend the I-601 restrictions if necessary.

Locke made education his top campaign issue. He called it “the great equalizer” and said it helped him rise from the housing projects of Seattle to an Ivy League education and success.

The Legislature agreed to give education top priority when it came to writing the budget, but said funding had to fit within the $19.1 billion available under I-601 for the next two years.

Although education’s share of the total budget hasn’t increased - it would take a huge dollar increase to boost the percentage - both parties say it’s accurate to call this the Year of Education.

“As far as kids and education go, we had a banner year,” says House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee.

“In terms of a huge expansion of opportunity for (enrollment in) colleges and universities, for staying the course on education reform, for providing dollars for training (displaced workers), for investment in a K-20 technology program and all of the gains we made in K-12, we set the benchmark and the Legislature met that higher standard,” says Locke. K-12 is kindergarten through 12th grade, while K-20 also includes four years of college.

Some of the highlights:

Overall, the aid-to-education budget is $8.9 billion, 46.5 percent of the total budget. The higher education budget is $2.2 billion, or 11.5 percent of total state spending. Those numbers do not include salary-increase dollars, which are counted elsewhere in the budget.

College enrollment was boosted by nearly 6,400 students. That brings the total to over 200,000 as the state prepares for the “Baby Boom Echo” demographic bulge, which is expected to have 50,000 more students knocking on college doors within 15 years.

Student financial aid was increased significantly, in part to offset some of the 4 percent annual tuition increase that is coming. On Wednesday, Locke signed legislation to allow parents to prepay tuition at today’s rates for college courses their children may not take for years.

School and college construction account for a large share of the state capital budget. State matching grants for locally approved school construction projects will top $277 million. Higher education projects totaling $546 million were approved.

Worker retraining programs at community and technical colleges will serve up to 7,200 displaced workers.

Teachers and college professors will receive a 3 percent pay boost this fall. The Legislature also approved a $4 million pool of money for recruiting and retaining faculty, and colleges were given permission to use some of their increased tuition dollars to improve salaries.

Lawmakers agreed to continue implementing the Education Reform Act of 1993, which will require all districts to bring students up to higher standards as measured by new tests. It’s an expensive proposition - $51 million alone for teacher-preparation grants.

After a veto by Locke, the Legislature restored $4.3 million in “complex needs” grants for 17 districts and half of the requested funding for districts with magnet schools.

The state’s fledgling K-20 technology system received $39 million. The plan is to eventually hook up all schools and colleges with Internet access, satellite courses and on-line material.

The Legislature provided $4.3 million to upgrade the teaching of reading and agreed to restore special levy capacity in districts that have been submitted levy requests of 24 percent. Voters will decide this fall whether to authorize four-year levy elections, rather than the current maximum of two-year levies.

Locke is expected to veto a prohibition against state use of $15 million in federal Goals 2000 education funds. The grants will be used by local districts to implement the education-reform law.

With the blessings of the Locke administration, the House approved legislation authorizing up to 50 charter schools. The measure died in the Senate, however. About half the states permit parents, teachers and nonprofit groups to form these publicly funded, largely deregulated independent schools.

The Washington Education Association, the teachers union, was generally satisfied with education funding, but complained that salary increases were inadequate.