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Shawn Vestal: Legislature collects another F over school funding

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Ho hum. The Legislature flunks again.

Dog bites man. Sun rises and sets. Salmon swim upstream and return to the ocean.

And lawmakers fail their chief test: agreeing on a budget to amply fund schools.

The first legislative special session drew to a close Tuesday, with no budget agreement. And so another 30-day extra session begins, with an added looming hammer: the possibility of a government shutdown if the fiscal year ends without a budget.

In the McCleary age, with a divided Legislature, this is the new normal. Special sessions. Games of legislative chicken. Year after year. Legislative session after legislative session. Special session after special session. The swallows return to San Capistrano. The tides recede and rise. The governor calls one more special session.

The task before the Legislature is a big one: meeting its constitutional duty to “make ample provision” for the schools. Lawmakers have been failing this test annually since the state Supreme Court ordered them to do their job back in 2012. And they have continued to fail since the Legislature was held in contempt of court in 2014.

The Legislature has increased school funding significantly but failed to develop an overall plan that the court deems acceptable – including a reliable way to increase teacher pay. It’s not an easy task, given that it will require raising revenues and making hard choices, but the real problem is not the difficulty. It’s the willingness: About half the lawmakers involved don’t want to do it at all.

Half – the GOP Senate – don’t really want to spend more on schools. They don’t really want to spend more on teachers. They believe school spending is already excessive and unproductive. They question the authority of the Supreme Court, and while developing a plan that begrudgingly, foot-draggingly puts more money into schools, they have also taken aim at a variety of the public-school shibboleths that drive them – such as teachers’ bargaining authority, raises and subsidized student lunches.

And now, as they enter special session No. 2, this half is simply refusing to negotiate.

It’s the annual bad-faith effort from legislative Republicans, and it has repeatedly poisoned the ability of the state to satisfy the McCleary ruling.

And so on Tuesday, another deadline came and went.

Another report card. Another F.


I’m sure that there is blame to go around, and Democrats are playing a role, too. The GOP is trying to force floor votes on the tax increases Democrats want to use to fund their school plan – a stunt that would have nonetheless forced certain political realities about the proposal out into the open in a way that might have been useful.

But the greater failing here is the refusal to negotiate. The failure even to come to the table. And it seems inescapable that, deep down, the GOP doesn’t really want to do what it’s being forced to do.

The Senate plan would increase school funding by raising state property taxes and shifting the burden away from local levies. It sometimes sounds as if the primary goal of the proposal is not to fund schools, though, but to prevent a capital-gains tax on wealthy Washingtonians, which is one of the Democrats’ preferred sources of funding.

It also is filled with little bad-faith Easter eggs, caps on cost-of-living increases and other raises for teachers, limits on collective -bargaining, and the like. Early versions included a technical change in the way school districts calculate their poverty rates that would reduce the number of schools that qualify for free lunch programs; when I asked senators why they were doing that, they said school districts were being incentivized to game the system to get more school lunch dollars.

Like, districts are pretending to be poorer than they really are, I guess. Too many kids are not paying full price. It’s not a big part of the plan, but it’s the kind of thing that tells you a lot about where they’re really coming from.

For all the discussions about the complicated details of competing schools plans, that is the chief obstacle, and it’s simple: They don’t want to do what they’ve been ordered to do.

Our constitution says the Legislature’s top job is to make sure the schools are amply funded. To make sure that we spend a lot of money on educating our children well – to spend money on schools the way we spend money on everything that actually matters to us in this society. To spend money on public schools as if they were, oh, I don’t know, a college football team or something.

The Supreme Court says we’re not ample yet.

The GOP thinks we’re way past it.

And the Legislature is flunking once again.