April 23, 2009 in Washington Voices

Eye on Olympia: Education reform pits PTA, WEA

Richard Roesler
 

OLYMPIA – In a legislative session with more than its share of surprises, one of the biggest has been the heated battle between school advocates over proposed reforms.

On one side: the state Parent-Teacher Association, the League of Education Voters and a long list of local school advocates, including some in Spokane.

On the other: the influential state teachers union, the Washington Education Association.

What would seem like an obvious political alliance fell apart over House Bill 2261. The bill, approved by lawmakers late Monday night, is a far-reaching plan to overhaul school funding.

It expands instructional hours and full-day kindergarten. It steers more money into pupil transportation. And it redefines basic education – meaning what the state pays for – in a way that will bring billions of dollars more to schools.

To proponents like the PTA, it’s a sweeping, badly needed reform that will help propel Washington’s students to the head of the class. The changes will make it easier for the public to see where the dollars are going. It creates a blueprint, they argue, for better schools.

“On average, the children in the state of Washington are less educated than their parents,” said Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City. Nothing should be more urgent than fixing that, he said.

“If not now, then when?” said Anderson.

But to the WEA and many other lawmakers, the bill is an empty promise. Although overall funding for schools has risen steadily, the state’s share of those dollars has been shrinking for years. School districts have been forced to turn more and more to local voters and property taxes. The state’s shrinking commitment, in fact, is the subject of a lawsuit slated to begin this summer.

And at a time when schools and teacher paychecks stand to get hundreds of millions of dollars less than expected from state coffers, the teachers argue, lawmakers should be focusing on today’s budget problems today. For years, they say, lawmakers have vowed to boost support for schools, only to watch as per-pupil spending here sank to one of the lowest in the nation. And the bill includes no new taxes or other revenue for schools.

“Between promising and fulfilling, there are chasms,” said Mike Sells, D-Everett. “… This bill says that somewhere down the road, 10 years hence, we’re going to change things. Maybe.”

In a nod to the state’s budget woes, the bill also phases in the changes. They don’t take full effect until 2018.

“I have a grandson in the third grade,” said Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline. “My grandson will have graduated from high school before we have this school reform plan implemented.”

Proponents counter that while the state may not have the money now, it needs to set up an ambitious plan for the future.

“We’ve set up a framework, something that we can march to and grow to,” said Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip.

“We aren’t putting another study on the shelf or punting an important decision to a task force,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina. “We’re making a solid commitment to our children that their education matters and we’re willing to walk the talk.”

If you doubt the high emotions behind the bill, look at the behind-the-scenes e-mails.

“This bill is a travesty and an insult to the education profession,” an outraged WEA President Mary Lindquist recently wrote to supporters. She blasted proponents as “vested interests masquerading as concerned citizens who care for children.”

“Our students deserve more than overcrowded classrooms and false promises of future funding,” she wrote.

PTA President Laura Bay returned fire, saying that PTA members have no vested interest other than the welfare of kids.

“A certain level of polemics is to be expected in any advocacy effort,” Bay wrote to Lindquist. “However, your ad hominem attack on our association and our members was totally out of line … Outraged, Mary? You should be ashamed.”

The bill passed Monday night. The governor, who’d earlier opposed the bill, is now expected to sign it into law.

Tax update

As the legislative session lurches toward its final days, lawmakers seem lukewarm at best on the two main ideas for offsetting hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts: a slight increase in the state sales tax or a state income tax on high earners.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, insists that the income tax plan isn’t dead.

“Nothing’s dead till we’re out of here,” she said earlier this week.

But it seems increasingly unlikely that other lawmakers will embrace the plan, which would impose a state income tax on people earning more than $250,000 a year.

The odds are better for the sales tax proposal, which asks voters to approve adding 3 cents to a $10 purchase and spend the resulting $1 billion over three years on hospitals, nursing homes and other health care services. But even that seems to be facing an uphill fight. It barely cleared a committee Tuesday, 8 votes to 7, and key lawmakers continue to voice doubts that the public will OK the plan.

Many Democratic lawmakers say the public hasn’t yet realized how substantial the state budget cuts will be. And the lack of a public outcry so far, they say, has hurt the political impetus to raise revenue and ease such cuts.

Republicans say that taxpayers are already facing layoffs, pay cuts and their own budget problems, and expect the state to be making the same sorts of hard budget choices.

Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, said he’s opposed to the income tax plan. That would only be possible as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s tax structure, he said. And this, he said, isn’t the time for that.

But the public will definitely feel the impact of billions of dollars in budget cuts, Marr said.

“This goes beyond rattling the local Department of Licensing office door and finding it closed,” Marr said. “This will be actually stepping over people sleeping on the sidewalk to get to that door.”

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or at richr@spokesman.com. For more news from Olympia, please see www.eyeonolympia.com.


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