No one expects a breakthrough on K-12 education-funding negotiations by the end of Washington’s regular legislative session. So what will it take to end years of debate and delay and resolve the multibillion-dollar problem known as McCleary?
OLYMPIA — It’s been 1,933 days since the state Supreme Court ruled that Washington, in violation of its own constitution, was underfunding public schools.
It’s been 617 days since the court followed up with a $100,000-a-day contempt of court fine against the state for failing to approve an education-funding plan that satisfies the order known as the McCleary decision.
Now, with three days left in this year’s regular legislative session, the fines are piling up, negotiations are ramping up — but a fix remains elusive.
No one expects a breakthrough by Sunday’s deadline for this session; at least one 30-day special session is guaranteed.
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What will it take to end years of debate and delay over a final resolution to the multibillion-dollar McCleary problem?
Those who watch Olympia expect a solution to come from a handful of lawmakers huddled in a room under enormous deadline pressure, hashing out compromises and ultimately cutting a deal.
That pressure is likely to come over fear of a government shutdown, which happens if no state budget, which includes K-12 school funding, is approved by July 1.
The high court justices are applying their own pressure. They’ve said lawmakers must approve an education-funding plan by the time the Legislature adjourns for the year. And that plan must be implemented by Sept. 1, 2018.
No one said this would be easy.
Lawmakers have wrestled with McCleary for years, boosting education spending by $2.3 billion in efforts to satisfy the court order.
Education funding: Where the parties stand
State lawmakers are trying to solve the last big part of the state Supreme Court’s school-funding order: how the state should pay for teachers and other school workers. But House Democrats and Senate Republicans are far apart on what to do — and how to do it. Here’s a look at where things stand:
They agree that:
• More state money is needed to pay for basic education.
• Starting teacher salaries must be raised.
• A solution should do more than the bare minimum requirements of the court order.
They disagree on:
• How much new money is needed to fund education, and where that money should come from.
• What kind of restrictions, if any, school districts should have on using local levy dollars in the future.
• What adjustments should be made to teacher salary schedules.
• What other education policy changes should be made beyond what the court has called for.
Source: House Democratic education plan (HB 1843) and Senate Republican education plan (SB 5607)
But elected officials are stuck on the last big part of the puzzle: How the state should pick up the cost of salaries for teachers and other school staff, as part of funding basic education.
Now, school districts pay a sizable chunk of those payrolls through local property-tax levies.
Three key McCleary plans offered this year — by House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Gov. Jay Inslee — would spend billions of dollars over the next few years to get that done.
With Democrats controlling the House and Republicans holding the Senate, the eventual compromise is likely to spread the political pain all around.
“They have to get past some of the politics of it, in order to get to a deal,” said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the nonpartisan League of Education Voters.
On top of that challenge, lawmakers must also draft the state’s 2017-19 operating budget. Republicans are refusing to negotiate until Democrats vote on their proposed tax increases, which are aimed in part at bolstering school funding.
Marty Brown, a former director of the state Office of Financial Management, said he has faith lawmakers will ultimately wrangle a deal.
“I think they’ve got the right people in the room,” said Brown, who also worked as a high-ranking staffer for former Democratic Govs. Chris Gregoire and Gary Locke.
“I think the governor and his folks need to be in the room, too,” he added.
Not everyone is so optimistic.
Fred Jarrett, a former lawmaker at the time the McCleary case worked through the courts, cites “the acrimony between the parties.”
Jarrett served on a bipartisan task force that released a report in 2009 about the state’s constitutional obligations to education. He points to the most recent legislative task force, which earlier this year failed to find consensus on McCleary recommendations.
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When it comes to reaching a deal by the end of June, Jarrett said, “I’m not sure they can.”
Eight legislators in a room
Eight lawmakers have been meeting a few times a week on the Capitol campus, searching for a McCleary compromise.
Gathering in a bland conference room on the third floor of a legislative office building, they sort through proposals released over the last few months.
“We’re throwing all the ideas on the table and slowly sort of peeling back what we think could work, what we think might not work,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, a member of the McCleary group.
They’ve been here before.
In 2015, lawmakers released several competing proposals to fund teacher salaries but couldn’t reach agreement.
Last year, the legislative task force worked to come up with a solution. It failed earlier this year to make formal recommendations.
Both parties agree on some things. Democrats, Republicans and the governor, for instance, all think starting teachers’ salaries should be higher.
Proposals by Inslee and House Democrats would raise new or existing taxes to fund education. Both plans include a new tax on capital gains, increases in some business-and-occupation taxes, and cuts in property taxes. Inslee’s plan also includes a new tax on carbon.
Senate Republicans would fund education through a so-called property tax “levy swap.” By setting a standard state property tax for schools, the proposal would raise levies in “property-rich” parts of the state, like Seattle and Bellevue, and lower them in “property-poor” areas, like many rural districts.
The higher taxes paid in wealthier parts of the state would help pay education costs in poorer districts. The Republican plan also makes several cuts to non-education programs to come up with more money for schools.
Lawmakers in both parties are also looking to make broader changes to the education system not mandated by McCleary.
The GOP plan would change how the state allocates money for schools, make it easier to fire teachers, and get rid of the existing teacher pay scale.
The House Democratic plan, meanwhile, would provide money to hire more parent-involvement coordinators and guidance counselors, and boost spending on vocational education.
“If you look at the two proposals and where they are, there’s just a lot of big, big gaps,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, a member of the McCleary negotiating group.
Big battles of the past
The McCleary debate is reminiscent of past epic legislative battles.
In 2011, the Great Recession battered Washington’s economy and tax revenue, forcing lawmakers and then-Gov. Gregoire to reckon with a $5.1 billion budget hole.
A problem like that comes with a saving grace: a deadline. Without a budget agreement by June 30 of every odd-numbered year, state government would shut down on July 1. Lawmakers and Gregoire that year reached a deal in late May.
Other debates grind on for years. In 2011 and 2012, Gregoire pushed for a statewide transportation package, and eventually pulled lawmakers into the governor’s office in search of a deal, according to Brown.
“That one was one where they ended up spending hours in the governor’s office,” he said.
No agreement was found before Gregoire left office in January 2013, but the talks built the foundation for an eventual, larger deal. Even when lawmakers finally coalesced around a package, it took hard compromise by Inslee, the new governor.
The deal in 2015 forced the governor to swallow language inserted in the package that blocked one of his environmental priorities.
“I think governors sometimes have to sort of set aside the things they actually want, to help other people get to the things they need to,” Brown said.
Policy first, or dollar total?
In budget years, lawmakers often talk about “the size of the box.” It’s Olympia-speak for how much money overall they’ll agree to spend before deciding how to spend it.
McCleary adds a twist. Does education policy determine the overall size of the budget deal? Or does the budget determine what gets done on education?
There doesn’t seem to be agreement on that, either.
“Until you decide the size of the McCleary box and where it comes from, it would be very difficult to completely write the budget,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said this week.
David Schumacher, director of the state Office of Financial Management, agreed lawmakers probably need an overall spending level before negotiating the final details.
“After they do that, then it’s negotiations, it’s ‘What do you want to do, what do they want to do,’ ” Schumacher said.
The governor’s office is searching for ways to help lawmakers agree on an overall spending level, Schumacher said. But Inslee doesn’t want to step in too soon.
“At a certain level, you know, a governor can only do so much,” Schumacher said. For lawmakers, “It’s their job, it’s their success or failure to start negotiating.”
Inslee could at some point sit the legislative leaders down at the long wooden table in his conference room and prod them toward compromise.
Or he could put Democrats and Republicans in different rooms and play mediator, shuttling back and forth. Brown recalled Gregoire trying that tactic on the transportation package.
Legislators and Inslee could also break with tradition and sign a temporary budget to keep the government operating past June 30, and keep on negotiating, said Todd Donovan, a politics professor at Western Washington University.
That’s a scenario that GOP budget negotiators suggested in June 2015, with the government days away from a shutdown over that year’s budget fight.
It remains unclear how — or whether — the state Supreme Court would react to that.