THE threat of a government shutdown Monday drove lawmakers to reach a budget compromise, averting a far-reaching financial disaster.
Though the agreement was hard-fought, the result that emerged Thursday made a sizable investment in education with some new revenue as well as reprioritizing some spending. The focus on education, coupled with at least four significant reforms, will contribute to making a difference for students ages 3 to 23.
Washington’s education system must incorporate early learning and higher education — with an emphasis on meeting state employers’ demand for graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. On all those fronts, lawmakers stepped up.
The state Senate and House agreed to spend an additional $1 billion on schools, in an effort to answer the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling on education funding. The key will be investing that money in reforms that can spur innovation and ensure that Washington’s education system prepares students to compete in a 21st century global economy.
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Reforms include: changes to school discipline methods as a way of keeping students in class; a focus on third-grade reading, adding $160 million more to the state’s learning programs for low-income and struggling learners; broadening academic opportunities, such as more Advanced Placement courses for students; and establishing new metrics to hold low-performing districts more accountable.
As the state takes over significant costs from local schools — including paying for transportation, smaller class sizes and all-day kindergarten — districts must invest money in improving education outcomes.
Another significant achievement is a reversal in the trend of disinvestment in higher education. Despite the challenges of another budget deficit, the Legislature actually increased its investment in higher education, an acknowledgment of the important role it plays in the state. After years of double-digit tuition increases, state budget writers say they allocated enough money to hold tuition at Washington’s universities and colleges steady for two years, although in the second year institutions will have flexibility to raise tuition if they want to.
The Legislature’s work is not done. Now lawmakers must turn their attention to passing a capital budget and do the heavy lifting to reach an agreement on a critically needed transportation package.
On Thursday, the House passed a transportation plan that includes a 10.5-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase and some authority for local governments to raise additional money. Metropolitan city and county leaders are desperate to maintain public transit and chip away at their massive maintenance backlogs.
Transportation policy and budgets historically have been bipartisan, but this year’s debate has high-centered on whether light rail should be included in the Columbia River Crossing project connecting Vancouver to Portland. The Seattle Times editorial board supports light rail on the bridge. But a month after an Interstate 5 bridge collapsed into the Skagit River, that disagreement must not hold up the larger transportation package.