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Panel tackles education

Committee of lawmakers, educators charged with recommending reform and finding ways to fund it

Dorn (The Spokesman-Review)
Dorn (The Spokesman-Review)
Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press

SEATTLE – They haven’t found a single new dollar to pay for their ideas, but state lawmakers and education officials are pushing ahead with plans to start implementing education reform.

A new education reform committee recently held its first meeting. It is chaired by the superintendent of public instruction and counts among its members the speaker of the House and the chair of the Senate Education Committee, so the political will to move on is there.

But some of the faces around the table have sat at similar meetings, battling similar issues for years.

First came the governor’s Washington Learns task force that published an ambitious plan to improve education in 2006. That report led to the state’s new Early Learning Department, but the Legislature could not find the money to implement most of the other ideas.

Then came the reinvented State Board of Education, which moved ahead on some related ideas, including new high school math requirements and a proposal to require high school students to earn 24 credits instead of 19 to graduate.

Next, the Basic Education Finance Task Force, wrote a road map last summer for completely changing the way the state distributes its education dollars. The task force’s ambitious plans would cost an estimated $3 billion to $4 billion a year, on top of the $7 billion a year the state already spends on education.

The 2009 Legislature adopted some of the task force’s ideas and put a new group, the Quality Education Council, in charge of implementing the plan, but with a new twist. This time, the task force is also in charge of finding the money to pay for the changes.

Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, has sat around many education reform tables, including Washington Learns and the Basic Education Finance Task Force.

“I think it’s time we have a sense of urgency about this issue,” Priest said after the Quality Education Council held its first meeting at the end of August.

Priest believes two pending state lawsuits will help light the fire under the seats of committee members: a Federal Way lawsuit before the state Supreme Court and a suit brought by a coalition of school districts and community groups that is being heard in King County.

Both lawsuits focus on whether the state is meeting its constitutional responsibility to amply cover the costs of educating all students in Washington.

The council has a number of interim deadlines but is expected to complete the current work on school budget reform by Sept. 1, 2018, and then meet every few years to update the state’s definition of basic education.

Committee member and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said lawmakers keep returning to the issue of public school reform because the need to invest in public schools is an ongoing issue.

“We can always do better and that’s what we plan to do,” he said.

Dorn, who was chosen to chair the council at its first meeting, said he sees this effort as education reform part two. Part one was requiring students to improve their academic performance to reach grade level. “Now we need funding to allow students to have a reasonable chance to meet their potential,” Dorn said.

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