With a local school district budgeting crisis averted, the Washington Legislature has little to distract itself from answering the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. Time to fully fund public schools.
Washington state teachers, principals, parents and — most importantly — students can breathe a collective sigh of relief. State lawmakers have brokered a compromise that avoids budget-busting cuts looming over school districts.
Their work is not over, however.
The urgency of resolving the state’s unconstitutional underfunding of K-12 basic education should continue to weigh heavily on all 98 state representatives, 49 senators and the governor.
This week, both the House and the Senate approved a bill that would extend the so-called levy cliff but with some added accountability provisions that should keep the pressure on. After 2018, districts will have to have the state certify that any levies they put on the ballot will not go to covering basic education costs.
The remedy, which passed the Senate 48-1 and the House 87-10, came just in time. School administrators were raising alarms about layoff notifications they would have to issue this month or next and programs that would have to be cut or delayed. Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland estimated the district would not be able to collect $74 million of what was intended to be only a temporary tax.
The Democrat-controlled House had passed a remedy Jan. 23, but for weeks senators were at an argumentative standoff that produced some Trumpian accusations on the Senate floor. Many senators hesitated because they thought early action would take the heat off the Legislature to solve the larger school education reform required by the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
That concern is not so far-fetched. Since the state Supreme Court made its 2012 McCleary ruling, the justices have chided, cajoled and chastised state officials. They held the state in contempt and later levied a $100,000-a-day fine that now stands at $57.7 million. Children then in kindergarten are in 5th grade now, and the quality of their educational experience continues to vary widely.
The court holds that the state is underfunding basic K-12 education and relies too much on locally raised taxes. That has created an untenable inequity of education for students in property-rich school districts that can raise more money from property owners than those in poorer districts.
Now, without the will-they-or-won’t-they drama of legislative action to delay the levy cliff, lawmakers should have little to distract them from solving the McCleary issue. They need to synthesize all the studies they’ve commissioned, the testimony they have received, inoculate themselves against special interest extremes (yes, they are on both sides) and settle their brains and hearts on Washington’s children and their education.
That means ensuring equity for Washington students and investing in approaches that yield authentic academic improvement especially for those who struggle.
Here’s a grim fact: Of the 80,700 Washington students who start 9th grade, 20,100 drop out before graduation, according to a report by Washington Kids 4 Washington Jobs, a partnership of the Washington Roundtable, Partnership for Learning, Educationfirst and Public Impact. By the age of 26, only 31 percent of Washington high school students earn a post-secondary credential, whether it is a certification, associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Most of the proposals before the Legislature include money to support struggling students or help all students manage the challenges that may come to them. Graduation coordinators and counselors can help students stay or get back on track.
In December, the governor released an education plan that includes more money for teachers, counselors and nurses. His funding plan matches the ambition with about $4.4 billion in new taxes — a mixture of business, capital gains and carbon taxes.
The Senate has passed an education plan with a number of promising reforms to improve student education — and even took a tax vote. The Senate would raise property taxes in some mostly urban districts and lower what property owners pay in others. Their plan is at least $800 million short of what is needed to pay for it.
The House has passed a reform proposal with good changes that also calls for increased funding. Democrats have offered a menu of possible tax increases, but the House has yet to take a tax vote.
Somewhere in all that is the solution. Invest in Washington’s children in ways that make an authentic difference. Today, on what is the 63rd day of the 105-day session, it is time to settle this.