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Washington task force struggles to outline education fixes as deadline approaches

OLYMPIA – The cost of providing Washington children with a good education may be an extra $7.1 billion over the next four years and require some kind of tax increase, legislative Democrats said Wednesday.

Or it may cost some unknown amount to be determined at some future date and possibly not require a tax increase at all if lawmakers simply pay for education first, legislative Republicans said.

With the start of the 2017 Legislature just five days away, a special Joint Task Force on Education Funding met Wednesday to come up with recommendations for what is expected to be the most contentious issue of the session – meeting a court mandate to improve public schools.

Democratic task force members said they labored long and hard over a possible compromise with recommendations that included higher starting pay for teachers, a new salary schedule, changes to the local school levy system and expansions of programs that would offer more equal education opportunities across the state. Price tag: about $1.6 billion in the next two years and $7.1 billion after it’s phased in over four years.

The Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate haven’t agreed to the recommendations, but the task force members said they’d lead the effort to persuade their colleagues.

Rather than specific recommendations, Republican task force members came up with what they called “guiding principles”: that the state would recognize the differences between urban and rural school districts; that some districts pay teachers more than others; and that the school levy laws should be changed to give local districts flexibility to pay for education enhancements as the state covers such basic costs as teacher salaries. But there was no price tag or tax recommendations because Republicans want to wait until Feb. 1 when they’ll have more data and be able to determine what Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, called “the size of the box.”

A set of recommendations is due from the task force when the Legislature convenes Monday. Rivers, who wrote the bill that set up the task force and its schedule, said she realizes now the timing was too short because a consultants’ report wasn’t finished until Nov. 15.

GOP members need to be respectful of fellow Republicans and not “foist upon them some proposal they would like to have input in,” she said.

Democrats accused Republicans of not doing their homework. “After seven months, you have guiding principles. It’s just not enough,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

Republicans accused Democrats of just recycling old ideas and calling them new proposals. “Please refrain from scolding us on our approach,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman John Braun, R-Centralia, said.

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