Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature and the governor must find a way to solve the state’s education funding mess.
POLITICAL bickering in Olympia is obscuring progress toward Washington state’s No. 1 goal: Ensuring all public-school children have access to a high-quality education.
Stop bickering, lawmakers. Keep your promises of education reform and meet the demands of the Supreme Court, which is growing increasingly frustrated that its 2012 McCleary ruling that the state must fully fund basic education has not been heeded. The court set a 2018 deadline for rooting out the inequities in the way the education system is funded.
Lawmakers with dueling spreadsheets should be laser focused on working together for the benefit of Washington children. That means not only ending the overreliance on local levies to pay for basic education but also raising some taxes to improve student outcomes.
If Republican and Democratic leaders cannot find a way to sit down and negotiate a compromise, second graders from Seattle to Washougal who need extra help with reading or math are going to keep falling further behind their classmates.
Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature and the governor have all presented some interesting ideas but also some ridiculous ones. These ideas need to be debated and compromises reached, or the children in Chimacum using old science textbooks won’t get the education they deserve.
The final agreement must improve student achievement, create more budget transparency and establish strong accountability measures for how education dollars are spent.
At minimum, here’s what the final McCleary solution must do:
• Ensure equity for all children. Every school needs a strong foundation to support basic education, which includes transportation, classroom supplies, plus teachers, principals, classroom aides, counselors, librarians and nurses. Money also should be targeted to help struggling students. The result might be a hybrid between the prototypical school model the Legislature passed years ago and the Democrats want to keep, and the Senate Republicans’ new student-centered funding model.
• Increase funding for school districts. The state should put more money into education, in a targeted, accountable way. Don’t take dollars away from some districts and give them to others.
• Provide additional money to support children who need it, from those learning English as a second language to the homeless, from children in special education to those in gifted classes.
• Consider that federal money to fill local needs might not be as reliable in the new administration as it has been.
• Require transparency and strict accountability. While the idea of statewide collective bargaining for education contracts has lost support, any money allocated for specific purposes must come with guardrails. Money set aside for homeless children must pay for programs to support them. Keep class-size money for smaller classes. Audit school districts to make sure they are using dollars prudently.
• Raise some taxes from resilient and stable sources. New money should not all come from property taxes, or disproportionately from urban areas with high property values. Lawmakers need to add at least one new source of dollars to the mix. A capital-gains tax is one idea.
• Don’t put the plan before voters in the form of a referendum, as the Senate bill proposed. Fully funding education is the job of the Legislature.
• Implement reforms already passed but not fully funded, including smaller classes in the early grades, all-day kindergarten and the 24-credit graduation requirement. Fulfill the education promises lawmakers have already made.
• Remember more classrooms are need as well as more staff to meet education-reform goals. More money is needed in the school construction matching fund and lawmakers should make it easier to pass construction levies.
• Increase pay for new teachers. To attract smart, creative people to the profession, teaching has to pay a competitive wage from day one.
• Create incentives that pull the most skilled teachers where they are needed most.
• Don’t forget the other needs of children: food, housing and health care. Don’t transfer money from family support services into the classroom. Both are crucial.
These ideas are not new. Neither is the 2012 McCleary decision or decades of inequity in public-school funding. Lawmakers know what the job is. They just need to do it.