The Legislature needs to stop its dithering over school funding and reform and put Washington’s students first, writes Kate Riley, editorial page editor.
Enough legislative dithering over Washington’s solution to the state’s school funding system, which perpetuates mortifying educational inequity among the state’s 1 million public K-12 students.
Five years after the Supreme Court ruled the state’s overreliance on local school levies was unconstitutional, legislative leaders are at a standoff on the state budget. Uncertainty is complicating district budgeting for the fall. Some teachers, their families and others are in limbo over what their prospects might be next fall.
It is untenable. If the Legislature’s 30-day overtime session expires on Tuesday and lawmakers cannot prove to the governor that they have authentic ways to compromise on the state budget, the governor should act — or rather not act. That is, instead of immediately calling yet another special session, the governor should show leadership … and stand down.
That effectively would kick the conversation back to the state Supreme Court, which has retained jurisdiction over the issue since its 2012 McCleary ruling. Within 30 days, the Legislature would have to file a report with the court; the McCleary plaintiffs would respond and then a hearing would be held. The court could then wade back in forcefully to compel lawmakers to solve this problem.
The Legislature probably would have to pass some kind of continuing resolution to keep state government running.
This suggestion by The Seattle Times editorial board is not to denigrate the work of those McCleary policy negotiators from the House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, who have been meeting diligently. Without sharing details, credible officials close to those negotiations report substantial progress on ironing out the differences between the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate policies. That is really good news.
Rather, this suggestion is to highlight the downright stubbornness of leadership on both sides of the aisle. Many credible sources, again on both sides of the aisle, report pained skepticism that the two houses will be able to agree on a budget and a plan to fund the policies that emerge from the McCleary negotiations before the end of the fiscal year June 30.
The details don’t matter as much as the goals, which matter a lot: Fix inequities, improve student outcomes, ensure accountability.
Briefly, the GOP-controlled Senate has passed a McCleary policy plan and a budget that includes an attempt to eliminate the state’s use of local levies to pay for basic education. It falls far short of the money needed. Also, it would cut property taxes around the state but raise them in more urban areas — making it DOA in the Puget Sound-dominated Democratic House. Further, some in Senate leadership tout the wrongheaded Grover-Norquist-style assertion that no new taxes are needed. Not a credible approach.
Meanwhile, the House Democrats, which have a 50-48 margin, also passed an education policy plan and offered a smorgasbord of new taxes but refuses to vote on them. While House leaders say they have the votes to pass their tax plan, enough of their caucus members have confirmed off-the-record the votes are not there. Again, not credible.
Senate leaders say they won’t negotiate until the House votes for new taxes it prefers; House leaders say they want to negotiate now. No doubt they are thinking about how such a vote could be used against them in their re-election campaigns.
Whatever. A lawmakers’ job is not to get re-elected; it is to, actually, do the job.
So, instead of a solution, Washington students are treated to an embarrassing civics lesson — a standoff with party leaders twisting themselves in knots to create spin that gives the intransigence of Congress a real run for its money. Meanwhile, the dithering costs — in terms of staff time to generate notices and create contingency plans. Lawmakers are playing chicken with our state’s most precious asset, our children, their families and school staff entrusted with their education.
And way too many children continue to languish in underfunded classrooms with fewer opportunities than some of their peers.
The Supreme Court just might be able to move this forward. It could be rough-sledding for all of us — perhaps school would be delayed or tax preferences granted to some businesses to spur job creation eliminated.
But this — right here, right now — is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Washington state. To make our schools better for all children — from Bellevue to Bridgeport, from Seattle to Selah and from Walla Walla to Wenatchee.
This is for our children, all of them. And, by extension, all of us. Better educated people are better citizens, less likely to require public social services. They are more productive and lift our economy. Every child deserves that chance to be that citizen.
Now is the time to put our youngest residents ahead of party and re-election. For heaven’s sake.