Washington’s state Senate is pursuing wise accountability measures as it works on the state’s education-funding crisis. But it cannot allow the fix to be delayed further, shortchanging another entering class of students.
STATE lawmakers should stop rattling their partisan swords over education-funding reform, which has pushed Washington to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
Partisan leaders in the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate are squawking over agreements not quite sealed and courage for bold reforms not exercised.
Stop it. Both factions deserve demerits for tardiness. Lawmakers have known for years that they were letting children down by failing to amply fund a uniform system of education, in violation of the state constitution. They and the governor are now in contempt of court under the McCleary lawsuit, which began in 2007.
Progress has been made, but the hardest tasks — including inevitable tax increases and changes to collective bargaining — have been put off as long as possible and pushed back until after November’s election.
Legislative leaders insist they need more time and information. Senate and House proposals would establish a task force to figure out how the state can directly pay for basic education and end schools’ reliance on an inequitable hodgepodge of local levies. By January, the task force is to recommend how to solve this Rubik’s Cube.
The plan was for the Legislature to then finish the job during its 2017 session — when it will be preparing the next biennial budget.
But Team Olympia can’t even punt without squabbling over details.
Republican senators are now pursuing a more ambitious “plan for a plan” than the version Democrats and some Republicans in the House approved last month.
In the Senate Ways and Means Committee, they added welcome accountability measures. They’re calling for improved school-district accounting and for the state auditor to ensure districts are properly using levy proceeds. They’re also clarifying state limitations on how districts can spend local levy dollars.
Ambiguity in this area, and lax oversight, enabled Washington’s school-funding system to become a jumbled mess. The quality of education now varies depending on levies that districts can get voters to approve. The system now shortchanges some.
Less encouraging is the Senate proposal that could delay education fixes by one more school year. That’s risky and counterproductive.
A bipartisan education work group called for the fixes to be done by the end of the 2017 legislative session — theoretically in late April 2017.
That deadline was passed by the House. It would put the new funding approach in place before the 2017-18 school year. It might also meet the Supreme Court deadline to fully implement the fix by 2018.
Yet the Senate committee amended the deadline last week, pushing it back to Dec. 31, 2017. That could defer fixes until the 2018-19 school year.
“There’s no ambiguity — ‘by 2018’ means the 2017-2018 school year,’’ said Tom Ahearne, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the McCleary case. He’s confident the later deadline “will be shot down immediately” by the court.
It’s not clear why Senate leaders want more time. Perhaps it’s a bargaining ploy.
Regardless, it’s an extremely risky strategy and one the full Senate should reconsider.
The increasingly impatient Supreme Court is teed up and ready to take another swing at the Legislature if it doesn’t see timely progress. If it decides lawmakers are delaying fixes further, it could impose a doomsday response, such as suspending all tax preferences or preventing school from resuming in September until the problems are addressed. High courts have used such options in Arizona, Kansas and New Jersey to force recalcitrant lawmakers to make education fixes.
Regardless of how one feels about the Supreme Court’s assertiveness, nobody wants the turmoil and uncertainty that further sanctions and a showdown between branches of government would bring to Washington taxpayers, companies and families.
The real victims, though, are the 1 million children who depend on adults to watch out for their best interests, amply fund their schools and provide the best chance to succeed in life.
Their education is the paramount duty of state government and the top priority of the Legislature. Get it done without further delay.