April 16, 2009 in City

Deal close on Washington school-funding overhaul

Richard Roesler Staff writer
 

OLYMPIA – In an eleventh-hour push, education advocates are calling on lawmakers and the governor to update the decades-old rule that spells out what the state should pay for in public schools.

“We’ve studied this long enough,” said state public schools Superintendent Randy Dorn.

Dorn, along with members of the state board of education, parent-teacher association and League of Education Voters, wants lawmakers to redefine “basic education.” That’s the basic learning that the state is supposed to pay for, with schools left to add extras from their local tax levies.

The definition of basic education hasn’t changed since the 1970s, he and others say. It doesn’t factor in things that have become increasingly important, like technology and school security.

“We are not a Third World country, yet we are not even paying the full cost of taking the bus” to school, said Mary Jean Ryan, chairwoman of the state board of education.

“We’ve been leaning on, leaning on, leaning on local levies,” said Dorn. “They’re maxed out.”

House Bill 2261 would expand the definition of basic education to include things like all-day kindergarten, more early learning programs, raising the high school graduation requirement to 24 credits, and adding staffers, including librarians, counselors and nurses.

The changes would almost certainly mean raising more tax dollars. An early version of the proposal came with a price tag of at least $3 billion.

Proponents argue that better education means a stronger economy and fewer social service costs later.

“This is urgent, it’s compelling, and it has to happen now,” said Tacoma parent Cheryl Jones.

Conspicuously absent from Wednesday’s chorus, however, was a major player in state politics: the teachers union. In an unusual public split among education advocates, the Washington Education Association has focused instead on trying to stave off major budget cuts.

“We have adults who are pointing to this bill and saying this is something good for kids,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the union. “At the same time, we’re cutting a billion dollars from those kids and the education that they’re getting.”

Instead of more promises of money in the future, he said, lawmakers need to be finding ways now to minimize teacher layoffs, programs cuts and overcrowded classrooms. And even under the current definition, he said, state funding for schools has grown steadily worse compared with other states.

“It’s unfortunate that the voice of the teacher in the classroom is being ignored in all this,” said Wood.

Some key lawmakers and the governor have been reluctant to commit to a new definition of basic education, for fear of being hauled into court and ordered to pay for it in the middle of a major budget shortfall.

Ryan argues that the state – required by its constitution to amply fund education – is already in a weak legal position. She also points out that a major lawsuit over state funding for schools is cued up for August.

“We’re not crazy people asking for money today,” she said. “We know there’s a financial crisis.”

The answer, proponents say, is to phase in the new definition to avoid sticker shock. The bill calls for full adoption of the new rule by 2016. State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, said Wednesday that 2018 might work.

“That gives us time in the early years” to restore budget cuts and find a way to raise more money for schools, said McAuliffe.

She said she understands teachers’ frustration.

“I think the teachers are just so concerned about what’s happening now,” she said. “They’ve been promised things before.”

Dorn and McAuliffe said Wednesday that a deal seems close. Key lawmakers in the Senate and House met for 48 hours to try to agree on a plan. It’s slated for a vote today.

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