Lawmakers now have the last piece of information they said they needed to finish their work reforming the way the state pays for basic education. Now it’s time to finish the work.
THE Washington Legislature now has the final piece of information lawmakers said they needed before deciding how to finish the work fixing the way the state pays for public schools.
A consultant’s report presented to the Education Funding Task Force Tuesday confirmed an estimate that has been floating around Olympia for years. It will take another $3.5 billion a biennium or more to complete the work required by the 2012 Washington State Supreme Court decision on education finance known as the McCleary decision. The foundation for the work is two reform bills enacted in 2009 and 2010. The high court is holding the state’s feet to the fire to follow through.
Now that the report is complete, lawmakers have no more excuses to delay this crucial work to improve the state’s education system and bring equity to the education of students in rich districts and poor ones. Going hand-in-hand with the finance reform must be vigilance to ensure the investments engender progress in student achievement.
Even so, state Sen. John Braun of Centralia, a Republican member of the task force, said he was skeptical lawmakers would be able to reach an agreement on a dollar figure — a viewpoint not shared by state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, another task-force member. She called Braun’s comments “unfortunate.”
Indeed, they are. Washington’s children can wait no longer.
Time’s up, lawmakers. The Legislature doesn’t need an exact dollar figure to know that the state must end its overreliance on local levies to pay some of the state’s financial responsibilities.
The consultant’s report to the task force found Washington’s teachers, administrators and other full-time school employees are being paid, on average, $14,651 a year from local property-tax-levy dollars. Add it all up, the report says, and the total shortfall is $1.5 billion a year, or $3 billion a biennium. That number does not include the additional costs of special education, student transportation, employees benefits and other classroom needs. So the total needed is more than $3.5 billion — that’s about the same number described by a bipartisan group of senators two years ago.
Over the past four years, lawmakers have added more than $2.3 billion to the state’s education budget for all-day kindergarten, smaller classes in the early grades, student transportation, classroom supplies and other needs. The debate over the amount of money needed to finish the job should be over. Now they have to finish the work.
The Legislature still has a math — or political — problem: where the money comes from. But the answer will come from a pretty short list: property taxes, a new capital-gains tax, closing tax exemptions, an income tax, moving state spending from social services or prisons to education.
Lawmakers need to sharpen their pencils and figure this out, debate proposals and vote sooner rather than later.