Lawmakers, school officials, parents and policy wonks sketch the outlines of the coming showdown over school funding at an Education Lab event.

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Lawmakers have assured the state Supreme Court that next year they will make good on their promise to pay the full price of a basic education for the state’s one million schoolchildren.

The debate over how much that should cost and who should pay for it has simmered for years with different interest groups typically preaching to their own choirs, but rarely gathered under one roof to hear each other out.

But a group of them came together Wednesday night in Seattle when about 80 people turned out for a professionally moderated discussion among education advocates and policymakers about what the Legislature should do when it convenes next January.  That’s the year that lawmakers are supposed to finally fulfill the requirements of the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling on school funding known as the McCleary decision. The event was organized and hosted by The Seattle Times Education Lab project.

One theme emerged that will likely shape the legislative debate next year: it’s not just about the money, but the kind of education that money can and should buy for all the state’s children, regardless of where they live.

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Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition of Washington summed it up when she said: “Yes, we need more money to fix the problem, but the problem is not that we need more money. The problem is that our school system is not working for our kids.”

For example, Navas supported an idea raised by Tukwila School Board member Mary Fertakis — that Washington State should move to a system that gives money to schools based on the needs of the students who attend them rather than how much the teachers make.

But Eden Mack, board member of a parent-led group called Washington’s Paramount Duty, emphasized that the system overall is underfunded.

“Even if we change the model, which we should be doing, it’s a parallel conversation,” Mack said. “There still needs to be more dollars.”

Kelly Munn of the League of Education Voters said that such a conversation has to include a shared vision for what the education system should look like and what taxpayers can expect for their investment.

“The way to make a sale isn’t to do the price first,” Munn said. “The way to make a sale is to convince people they want it, first. If you lead with the price, all you get are the bargain-hunters.”

Munn and the others were joined on the 10-member panel by Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island) and Rep. Chad Magendanz (R-Issaquah) — both members of the state Legislature’s Education Funding Task Force — and Washington State Treasurer Jim McIntire. The panel also included  policy and parents’ advocates, a Seattle Public Schools administrator and a Seattle teacher.

Magendanz agreed that the state must find more money to meet its obligations under the McCleary ruling,  but he said many Republicans worry that the price tag will be ratcheted up endlessly unless the Legislature reaches agreement on how much is enough.

“Just throwing money at the problem with no exit strategy is a non-starter for most of the conservative elements of the Legislature,” Magendanz said. “We need to know that there is a bill and that we’re going to pay it and it’s going to be done.”

A professional moderator led the conversation, which was designed to make sure that speakers and audience participants  had a chance to talk with each other — and as a group — about what stood out to them.