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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Pencils, pens, paper can’t be put off by Legislature

Making the rounds on Facebook is a placard that reads: “Teaching: The only profession where you steal from home.”

The point is that schools don’t have enough supplies for students, so teachers fill the gaps. But they’re not alone, because this time of year parents are confronted with long lists of supplies for their child’s first day of school.

Amid all the talk about the state of Washington making progress toward the goal of fully funding basic education, schools still rely on parents to supply items such as pencils, notebooks, crayons, glue, rulers, erasers and folders. But costs can run from $60 to $100 per student.

This practice has become routine, with stores displaying the teachers’ lists alongside the needed supplies. That’s convenient, but some families simply cannot afford the expense. (If you think teachers are asking for too much, it’s because they want enough to distribute to students who bring very little.)

School supply drives have become a summer staple as charitable organizations raise funds to fill backpacks for low-income students. Operation Homefront, depicted in a Spokesman-Review article Saturday, is but one example. More than 200 families picked up supplies last Friday at Fairchild Air Force Base. These fundraisers, along with the long lists children bring home, are tangible indicators that we have a long way to go before the state truly covers the basics.

The Washington Supreme Court, in its 2012 McCleary decision, gave the Legislature five years to meet the goal of amply funding basic education. Local districts have filled considerable gaps with levy money earmarked for enrichment programs, but neither the state nor the districts have financed basic student supplies. They know it’s a safe bet that the public will ride to the rescue.

But property owners have already paid up.

The problem is that lawmakers have underfunded basic education for so long, the hole they have to backfill is huge. They made a $1 billion down payment this year, which will be put to good use: full-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes for younger students, more instructional hours for middle and high school, and more money for maintenance and transportation.

The state has until 2018 to meet the court’s edict on funding special education, which could cost $4.5 billion or more by then. Lawmakers must show “steady progress,” so future legislatures will be adding to this year’s total. This will be a daunting challenge in the no-new-taxes climate of today’s politics.

The temptation will be to shift as many costs elsewhere as possible, but filling long school supply lists amounts to a tax, so lawmakers ought to formalize such an arrangement.

After all, what could be more basic to education as the tools students need to learn?

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