While money is expected to be the top issue this year with lawmakers, who reconvene Monday in Olympia, those focused on education are just as happy to talk about policy ideas, including some that may address court concerns about education dollars.
With nearly a billion-dollar shortfall and a state Supreme Court ruling on inadequate education spending hanging over their heads, one might expect lawmakers preparing for the 2012 Legislative session to be focused exclusively on money.
While money is expected to be the top issue in Olympia this year, lawmakers who focus on education are just as happy to talk about policy ideas, including some that may address court concerns about education dollars.
The Legislature convenes Monday for a 60-day session, just a few weeks after a special session on the state’s budget. Although lawmakers made some cuts to the state budget, they still have a shortfall to resolve.
Among her budget proposals, Gov. Chris Gregoire has suggested a couple of unpopular education cuts — including cutting the money that helps some school districts make up for an inability to raise enough local taxes — that she would like to see offset by an increase in the state sales tax.
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Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, bristles when he hears the governor talk about buying back these education cuts.
“They shouldn’t be used as fodder to justify a tax increase, ” said the leader of House Republicans on the issue of education.
Cuts to levy equalization dollars are not likely to get much of a hearing in Olympia this session, because the chair of the Senate Education Committee says she doesn’t support the idea.
“That’s probably one of the last cuts I want to make,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell.
McAuliffe would prefer to talk about science, technology engineering and math programs and expanding a pilot program to change the way teachers and principals are evaluated. And she’s pretty excited about innovative schools and how Washington can partner with businesses to support special programs like Aviation High School.
She’s not sure the governor’s proposal to shorten the school year — but not cut the hours kids spend in school — will save much money, but she’s willing to discuss the idea
Also on the education-policy agenda for this session is Sen. Rodney Tom’s proposal to change the way Washington determines teacher layoffs. The Medina Democrat wants to put teachers who score lowest on performance evaluations first in line to lose their jobs during an economic downturn.
His proposal was a near miss in 2011 and already has been resubmitted for the current session. Although teacher contracts are written at the local level, they all make seniority the main consideration during teacher layoffs. Tom said the bill would keep high-performing young teachers in disadvantaged schools that need them.
The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic public education and that the judiciary would keep an eye on lawmakers to ensure they fully implement education reforms by 2018. An attorney for the school districts, parents and others who sued the state says the ruling means the Legislature will have to pay for education first, before any other state program or financial obligation.
About 43 percent of the state’s general fund — about $15 billion in each two-year budget cycle — is spent on K-12 education.
In 2009, the Legislature passed a blueprint for reforming the way the state pays for education, but it has yet to put any significant dollars toward adopting that plan. Although no one knows for sure, some education-finance experts have put as much as a $4 billion price tag on the two-year cost of that reform plan.
Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, has a proposal that wouldn’t save any money but it might answer some of the court’s concerns over the state’s overreliance on local levy dollars to pay for education.
The chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, who has been involved in every recent education reform effort in the Legislature, wants the state to replace some local levy dollars with more statewide property-tax collections.
Instead of the school districts with the highest property values being able to collect the most school-levy dollars, taxpayers across the state would be contributing more to the overall state education system. Hunter says the system would be more fair — but likely not more popular — statewide.
Taxpayers in high-value districts may not like seeing their dollars shifted to other places, for example. And in places where taxpayers are paying relatively low school levies — like Seattle where a large population shares the tax burden — they would likely see their taxes go up.
“Everyone agrees that the system is not very fair,” Hunter said. He added that Seattle taxpayers also would pay a larger percentage of the governor’s proposed sales tax increase, while many taxpayers in other parts of state, who were paying more of the cost of local education, would see their taxes go down.
“This is fairer, and it grows faster,” he said.
Hunter’s proposal would replace levy equalization with a new system and he says it would move about $1 billion around and eventually help fix some of the inequity in the way school dollars are distributed around the state.
It also could become a more stable source of school funding and answer another criticism of the Supreme Court.
The proposal is extremely complex, so much so that he would rather attempt a two-thirds vote in the Legislature than try to explain it to everyday people before it appears on the state ballot.
McAuliffe said she found Hunter’s idea intriguing, but she said she wouldn’t want to rush an important reform during a short legislative session. Hunter said the idea is getting a pretty good reception from lawmakers and others.
“I haven’t found anyone who has said absolutely not,” he said.