May 20, 2009 in City

Governor signs school reform plan

Gregoire vetoes sections for preschool, gifted kids
Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press
 

SEATTLE – A plan to overhaul Washington’s K-12 education system was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Chris Gregoire, but she vetoed parts of the measure focusing on preschool and gifted education.

One of the bill’s main architects, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said he was disappointed the governor altered the bill at the last minute, but he still felt good about the results of basic education reform.

“I’d say it’s a bittersweet day,” he said. “I think we have a good bill here. I don’t think it’s perfect.”

The governor vetoed two sections: one mandating preschool for at-risk children and the other concerning money for gifted education in districts that can’t afford it. She said both ideas need more development and all children in Washington deserve preschool, not just at-risk kids.

While he understood Gregoire’s argument, Hunter said he would have preferred to hear about the preschool issue during the legislative session, when lawmakers could have worked on it. He said lawmakers will come back next year and address her concern.

The bill overall, however, is “still a huge win,” Hunter said.

The measure spells out how the state should change the way it pays for education and updates the definition of what is basic education in Washington state.

The plan would create smaller classes, full-day kindergarten and a longer high school day to give students a chance to meet higher credit requirements.

It would also distribute state education dollars based on a new formula, but does not include a plan for paying for the changes.

Before signing the bill, Gregoire said she believes the reforms will lead to “a world-class public education system” that ties the taxpayers’ financial support of public education to programs that are shown to work.

In a room filled with supporters of the reform bill, the governor echoed the sentiments of its critics by also speaking about what was missing from the legislation: a way to pay for it.

“But I strongly believe that these policies, fully developed with the fiscal support they need, will be the greatest promise and the greatest legacy that we can give our children,” she said.

Lawmakers and government officials have estimated the reforms could add as much as $4 billion a year to the just under $7 billion the state already spends on K-12 education annually.

Gregoire noted that the Legislature is working to address the lack of money by phasing in the reforms over about eight years and assigning a Quality Education Council to make sure the financing system is put in place.

“I strongly believe that if we’re going to hold our educators and our students accountable, then we must hold legislators and the governor accountable as well. And that is what the bill does,” she said.

The state uses sales, business and property taxes to pay 84.3 percent of the cost of educating Washington’s 1 million school children. The other 15.7 percent comes from local levies and some federal money, primarily for education of special-needs children.

Most state dollars go to teacher salaries. The state also matches local bond money for school construction.

Hunter said adding preschool for all to the state’s definition of basic education could have a price tag of more than $1 billion a year.

The cost of preschool for just “at-risk” kids – the provision Gregoire vetoed – would be somewhere around $170 million a year and save the state money in the long run because of the early learning investment, said Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, another of the bill’s architects.

Priest said Tuesday’s bill signing was one of the oddest he’s attended because of the shock on people’s faces when they learned the governor was going to cut such a major element of the reform bill without warning them first.

“We’ve had months, if not years, to have a discussion about this issue,” Priest said, referring to the nearly two years a legislative task force spent working on the reform proposal. “To arbitrarily veto it with no discussion was truly disappointing.”

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