As state lawmakers address mandates to boost funding for kindergarten through 12th grade schools, they must also consider the needs of early learning and higher education students.
MORE money will flow into Washington’s kindergarten through high-school programs in the next two years, but state lawmakers must ensure that doesn’t come at a cost to early and higher education.
The state’s education system should foster student success from ages 3 to 23, but unlike K-12, funding for pre-K and higher education arguably are not protected by the state Constitution.
During the 2013-2015 budget cycle, Washington put $15.3 billion or about 45 percent of total state spending into K-12 education. For the next two budget cycles, the Legislature faces the challenging task of managing two major demands for education funding.
The first is complying with the McCleary decision, a state Supreme Court ruling mandating the state to fully fund basic education, which requires close to $5.7 billion in additional funding during the next four years.
The second is Initiative 1351, a ballot measure voters approved in November that limits class sizes and calls for hiring 25,000 more school staff. The state Office of Financial Management estimates that would require an additional $4.7 billion to fund from 2015 to 2019.
Together, the mandates would require more than $10 billion in additional K-12 spending in the next four years.
Based on those estimates, education spending would balloon by 33 percent in the next two years compared with 2013-2015 spending levels.
Those additional expenses are larger than what the state spends in total on higher education: $3.1 billion or 9 percent of the 2013-2015 budget. In that same period, the state put $163 million into the Department of Early Learning.
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Coming up with an extra $5 billion for each of the next two budget cycles won’t be easy. Lawmakers will have to decide what they can cut or how they can raise more revenue.
Cuts could hit other parts of the budget beyond higher education and early learning, such as corrections and social-service programs. Raising the sales tax another percentage point would be unpopular, but effective.
Pouring billions more into education sounds like a victory for students and advocates for the state’s public schools — but not without reforms.
Also, not sending students to kindergarten prepared to learn or limiting their options to continue learning after high school would diminish the gains from improving K-12 education.
When drafting the state’s next budget, lawmakers must concentrate on maintaining funding for students at all levels.