When Gov. Jay Inslee announced his proposed budget for 2020, he dashed already cautious hopes that public schools would draw even a little attention when lawmakers return to Olympia on Monday.
His office thinks the state — after funneling $12 billion into K-12 education since 2013 — has “largely tackled” the issue, despite a recent stagnation in Washington students’ standardized test scores.
Indeed, Inslee’s one-page proposal for education includes just four items: More nurses in small schools, mental health support, career-education programs for tribal students and better instruction for court-involved youth. The requests total just under $5.5 million — a fraction of the roughly $1.1 billion Inslee wants to add to the 2019-21 budget he signed last year.
Lawmakers only reached that 11th-hour deal after relaxing the limits on how much school districts can collect from local property-tax levies.
Similarly, when state House and Senate leaders joined The Associated Press on Thursday for a preview of their priorities this year, only one — Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane — mentioned special education at the top of his agenda. Early learning also got a nod.
Missing from the legislative preview and Inslee’s budget request is the $5.6 billion that a state work group thinks schools need to hire nurses, psychologists and other non-teaching staff — positions that districts rely on local levies to fill. Also absent: Increased funding for teacher salaries, homeless students, school construction and other spending priorities pushed by the state associations for parents, educators and school boards.
Why such little focus on K-12 schools — at least for now — in Olympia? The highlights of Inslee’s proposed budget offer a clue: “Having largely tackled the state’s school-funding problem, Gov. Inslee and the Legislature this year (2019) turned their attention to critical needs in other areas.”
Virginia Barry, policy and government affairs manager for the education-advocacy group Stand for Children, summarized what the governor might have meant.
“Didn’t it basically say, ‘Now that we’ve finished education, we can focus on other things’?” she said. “That was notable.”
And Washington voters seem to agree with Inslee.
Between 2015 and 2018, as a landmark school-funding case forced the state to fix its broken K-12 budget, education claimed the top spot among voter concerns, according to years of Crosscut-Elway polling data. That case, known as McCleary, ended in late 2018, and now, according to new poll results released Thursday, education has dropped to sixth place among voters’ highest priorities, with homelessness as the first.
Still, the House GOP’s chief budget writer doesn’t assume other issues will eclipse public schools entirely this year.
“We’ve done a phenomenal job with education funding over the last decade, and we need to continue to maintain those investments and can’t let them atrophy,” said Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn.
“The whole point of McCleary wasn’t just to write a big check,” he added. “We want to actually improve outcomes for kids, and the Legislature as a whole really needs to pay attention on how to do that.”
Agreement possible on special education
As was the case last year, special education might offer the sole point of bipartisan agreement on how else the state can improve funding for public schools.
The Legislature added $155 million to its 2019-21 budget to cover extra services for students with disabilities. But the state superintendent’s office still expects that to fall nearly $71 million short of what school districts actually spend to support those children.
Christine Rolfes, the Senate Democratic budget writer, said that she anticipates the K-12 committee in that chamber will consider additional changes to special education.
But, the Bainbridge Democrat added in an email, “any funding increases for the districts will likely be additive and modest relative to recent years.”
Aside from the calls for more money, education advocates and lawmakers have started working on the policy side of legislation to change the day-to-day lives of students in schools.
Proposed legislation could make it easier for parents with criminal records to volunteer in their children’s schools, expand materials for ethnic studies to grades 1-6 and provide free menstrual products in middle and high school.
Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, meanwhile, has requested legislation to expand financial aid awareness and create a common application for incoming freshmen at all four-year colleges and universities in the state. Separately, Habib wants to ban holds on college registration and transcripts as a tool to collect student debt.
“We’ve taken a big step forward in terms of addressing financial barriers to higher education,” Habib, in a statement, said of a 2019 bill that will cut the cost of tuition, or make it free, for low- and median-income students. “But non-financial barriers can be just as significant.”
The short, 60-day legislative session also comes at a critical time for charter schools: The budding sector of publicly funded but privately run schools is still stinging from the sudden closure of four charter campuses last year.
Supporters in part blamed the closures on a last-minute decision during the 2019 legislative session to block charter schools from additional state money. And it’s unclear whether lawmakers will try to change that this year.
“Charter schools can sometimes descend into an ideological fight,” Stokesbary said. “But at the very least, I wish the adults would do everything they could to give these schools the opportunity to succeed rather than try to take that away.”