The lawmakers who wrote the framework for the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision say today’s legislators need to start talking with each other or they will never get to go home.
I have one positive thing to say about this state legislative session: It’s not boring.
But mostly, what’s been happening in Olympia this past month makes me cringe because lawmakers are not making progress toward their No. 1 goal: education funding reform.
Yes, there are a number of proposals on the table to change the way the state pays for public schools. But each contains a fatal flaw. Until lawmakers from both parties and both houses work together on a compromise that includes both more money for schools and more help for struggling kids, aimed at improving outcomes and equity in our education system, the Legislature will not move one step closer to answering the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision.
About a decade ago, lawmakers from both houses and both parties sat together, ate a bunch of pizza, drank a lot of coffee and came up with a bipartisan plan to update Washington’s education system. I watched from the sidelines, as an education reporter for The Associated Press, and witnessed true bipartisan cooperation and respect, something I have not seen lately in the Washington Legislature.
The group that called itself the education caucus drew up a long-range plan to do things like shrink class sizes in the early grades and created a model of how every school should be staffed. The details of executing and paying for that plan were left to future legislatures.
Former state Rep. Skip Priest, a Republican from Federal Way who is now retired and living in western Idaho, says the idea of gradually ramping up education funding made a lot of sense.
Priest said he and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, who is the only member of the education caucus still serving in the Legislature, knew finding the money was going to be difficult, but not impossible.
The Washington attorney general’s office used the plans created by the education caucus and passed by the Legislature during the McCleary lawsuit trial as evidence that lawmakers were already making progress toward more equity in the state’s education system. The Supreme Court seated its decision on this same work. So, like it or not, the work of these smart, thoughtful lawmakers must continue to guide today’s Legislature. I do not believe the justices will accept a completely new education funding system that does not follow the plan codified a decade ago.
Sullivan says the reason he and Priest could be from different parties but still part of the same team is because they respected each other as friends and colleagues and struggled together to learn everything they could about what research said would make a difference for kids.
“Skip and I just had a connection. Everything he told me, I believed him 100 percent. I felt he would never do anything dishonest or play political games,” Sullivan said recently.
Priest expressed similar sentiments about Sullivan and their other colleagues.
Former Rep. Ross Hunter, the Medina Democrat who is now director of the state Department of Early Learning, speculates the lawmakers worked together so closely because they took the time to get to know each other as people. But, Hunter adds, personal relationships are not required for deal making. As the House’s chief budget writer, he came to many compromises with the Senate by working with people he didn’t have a good relationship with.
In a way, the McCleary challenge is simpler, Hunter says, because of the level of outside political pressure. He says, and I agree, the Supreme Court and the citizens of Washington are not going to let lawmakers go home without a deal.
Fred Jarrett, who served in the Legislature as first a Republican and then a Democrat, blames an increase in political partisanship for inaction in the Legislature toward a McCleary compromise.
Now senior deputy executive for King County, Jarrett thinks a couple of things would move today’s lawmakers in that direction: talk to each other, eat together, don’t hide inside your offices.
A reader called me the other day with some similar ideas.
Retired middle school teacher Dale Lautenschlager thinks lawmakers should sit together for a few hours each day in the House and Senate chambers, having meetings and making phone calls. Then several times a week, she says, lawmakers should go out to lunch with someone from the other party.
While I was listening to her sensible ideas, a little voice in my head said: Lawmakers would probably need a hearing and a study before making such a bold move. I hope I am wrong.