Since Gov. Jay Inslee took office, the issue of funding public education has loomed ever larger. Has he done enough to help the state move toward finding the billions of dollars needed to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling?
When Jay Inslee ran for governor in 2012, he pledged a focus on creating high-tech and green jobs to revitalize the state’s economy, which could bring in tax revenue to boost education funding.
Looking back, it’s surprising the Washington state Supreme Court’s order on K-12 funding, the 2012 McCleary decision, didn’t seem more politically urgent. The court had just declared the state was violating its own constitution by not spending enough on basic public education — and still, the Democratic candidate for governor did not feel compelled to offer a comprehensive solution.
The Republican nominee, then-Attorney General Rob McKenna, stepped forward with a plan to change how state and local taxes pay for costs such as school-worker salaries. Inslee shot it down.
Since then, the issue of how to find the billions of dollars needed to resolve McCleary has only loomed larger in Olympia: The Supreme Court has remained so unsatisfied with the state’s progress on a full education-funding plan that, in unprecedented moves, justices in 2014 found the state in contempt, and later, ordered fines of $100,000 a day.
Now, as Inslee seeks a second term against former Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant, he is again campaigning with jobs and the economy front and center. The governor won’t release a full McCleary funding plan until December — after the November election. He says he doesn’t have the necessary school-funding data to put out the plan sooner.
“If we design our lives based on wishes, yeah, I wished that we’d solved everything an hour after I took, you know, my oath of office in 2013,” Inslee said, during an interview in a downtown Seattle state-government office he uses when in town. “But these are challenging issues.”
For signs of progress, the governor points to the money: Since 2013, he and lawmakers have added $5.4 billion in education funding. That includes at least $2.3 billion for expenses such as transportation and school operations called for in McCleary.
Inslee also stresses improvements in parts of education not covered by McCleary, like early learning and higher education.
“All of this sort of public comment is about this judicial decision,” Inslee said. “Whereas we’ve had robust, significant, vigorous improvements all the way through the educational spectrum.”
But the governor’s critics accuse him of not doing enough to push the state toward the finish line on McCleary.
Others released plans
In 2015, a handful of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn, released several different funding proposals. Not Inslee.
By not releasing his own plan, the governor signaled it “must not matter, must not be that important,” said Dorn, a Democrat who is retiring this year.
Some insist Inslee could have put forth his own proposal before now, or focused less on his climate-change agenda, or pushed lawmakers harder to find a solution, or called a special legislative session after the court imposed its fines.
Bryant, too, has criticized Inslee for failing to produce a plan, but the Republican has not made a McCleary proposal of his own.
In a recent Supreme Court hearing, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen questioned why the state left the biggest task — the plan to figure out how to pay salaries of teachers and other school workers — for last.
“You would think you’d start with that piece,” Madsen said.
But leaders in both parties and Inslee can’t agree on the salary issue, which state estimates project could cost around $3.5 billion every two years.
Four years after the McCleary ruling — and nearly a decade since the case began moving through the courts — Thomas Ahearne, attorney for the McCleary plaintiffs, has little sympathy.
“I don’t see the governor as showing leadership,” said Ahearne. “Or frankly, anyone on either side of the Legislature.”
With its hefty projected price, a plan for shifting the costs of school salaries from local levies to the state is likely to involve politically painful decisions on revenue and spending.
Even as that problem has remained unsolved, Inslee and lawmakers have, indeed, boosted education funding by billions in recent years.
First, there’s the approximately $2.3 billion added since 2013 to specifically address the McCleary decision. That has gone toward items such as school materials, operating and transportation costs, as well as all-day kindergarten and a move toward lowering K-3 class sizes.
Inslee also points out additional spending made beyond K-12 education, a strategy he calls “McCleary-plus.” Among other investments, it included $138 million in the 2015-17 state operating budget to expand early learning programs, according to data from the governor’s office.
And then there’s the college tuition cut Republicans pushed for in 2015, a proposal Democratic lawmakers and Inslee eventually supported and refined.
Inslee describes these parts of education — before and after K-12 — as essential to the education system. He compares it to a ladder.
“If you’re going to have a ladder, you’ve got to have the first rung, you’ve got to have the middle rung and you’ve got to have the top rung,” Inslee said. “And we’ve done all of those things, and that was not ordered by the court.”
All told, Inslee and the Legislature have boosted education funding by $5.4 billion over the past four years, according to data from the governor’s office.
That’s a lot of money, given that the current two-year operating budget amounts to about $38 billion. Both Inslee and Senate Republicans have called those education investments historic in size.
And a recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that between 2008 and 2016, Washington state ranked third in the nation for increased per-student K-12 funding.
In 2012, the nonpartisan League of Education Voters didn’t endorse a gubernatorial candidate, saying neither Inslee nor McKenna had a sufficient school-funding plan.
This time around, the group endorsed Inslee. Chris Korsmo, CEO of the organization, credits that partly to the governor’s record of working to improve all stages of education — not just McCleary issues.
And yet the governor has spent much of his time at the bully pulpit pressing solutions not for McCleary, but for climate change and other priorities.
In 2015, Inslee did combine the two, pitching a carbon tax to raise money for education. Estimates at the time projected the plan would raise nearly $1 billion per year, of which Inslee proposed spending $380 million on education.
The proposal died without even getting a floor vote in the Democrat-controlled House.
Also that year, Democratic and Republican state lawmakers, as well as Dorn and state Treasurer Jim McIntire, all chimed in with complex salary-funding proposals that would ease the overreliance on local school-district tax levies.
Inslee largely stayed away from the debate then, other than to dismiss McIntire’s funding proposal, which included an income tax.
As lawmakers prepared to go into a special session that spring after failing to agree on a budget or education plan, Inslee used the moment to call for a renewed focus on environmental issues.
Dorn and Republicans gripe that Inslee’s environmental agenda took focus away from education.
“He has his own agenda, very much focused on climate change,” said Rep. Chad Magendanz, a Republican from Issaquah who works on McCleary issues. Dorn, a frequent critic of Inslee and lawmakers in both parties on McCleary, said he thinks the governor could have done more to prod lawmakers toward a solution.
Inslee could be speaking out to prepare the public for what it will take to finish McCleary, said Dorn, or could have abandoned the $16 billion statewide transportation package that Inslee and lawmakers agreed upon, to focus on education.
Dorn — who has urged the court to shut down the school system over McCleary — also suggested Inslee could have vetoed bills sent to him to force lawmakers to focus on a McCleary solution.
As for criticism of his leadership, the governor points back to all the money poured into education.
“Everybody has a First Amendment right to be critical,” said Inslee, adding later: “But the proof is in the pudding.”
At the start of the 2016 legislative session, Inslee proposed hiking minimum teacher salary to $40,000 annually, a raise of $4,300 for the 2016-17 school year.
If passed, that plan would have constituted a show of good faith to the court that lawmakers wanted to fix the school salary issues, according to House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. But the $100 million proposal died in the Legislature.
On Aug. 13, 2015, the day the Supreme Court handed down its $100,000-a-day contempt fine, Inslee and legislative leaders held a conference call to figure out what to do.
That led to a meeting in SeaTac between the governor and lawmakers, who announced afterward that a special legislative session — an idea put forth by the court — was unlikely.
Instead, Inslee convened a working group of lawmakers from both parties. The governor attended the first meeting, and according to those in the room, urged lawmakers to find consensus. Subsequent meetings were facilitated by a senior member of Inslee’s staff.
That group paved the way for the McCleary legislation passed by the Legislature earlier this year. Senate Bill 6195 created a bipartisan education-funding task force, which is gathering data on school salaries and local school-tax levies — the information Inslee says is necessary for his plan.
The task force will make its own recommendations before the 2017 legislative session starts in January.
Even as Inslee moved to pull together the work group, most of the state Senate’s Republicans signed an open letter pushing back on the court, questioning its authority to impose its sanctions, saying the action “politicizes the judiciary.”
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, credits Inslee’s efforts in bringing the work group together as a move that “basically kept everybody at the table” on McCleary.
Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, a group member, describes Inslee’s style in such meetings as “personable.”
“And so he’s good in those situations,” said Billig.
Inslee made the right decision to convene the group and then leave lawmakers on their own to work toward a solution, Billig said. The governor “could have done nothing,” said Billig. “On the other end, he could have created his own plan and tried to force it on everybody.”
That route likely would not have gone well with Republicans distrustful of the governor and critical of the court’s contempt actions.
Magendanz said he valued Inslee’s presence that first meeting — but wished the governor had stayed more personally involved.
“He set the stage at the first meeting, he — I thought — did a pretty good job of narrowing the focus,” said Magendanz, who like Billig was on both the 2015 work group and the current task force. “The danger with McCleary is that everyone wants to turn it into their own agenda.”
But other Republicans, like Sen. John Braun of Centralia, take the governor to task for not putting forward any policy proposals since then.
“This isn’t the governor’s thing, the governor’s just tolerating what we have to do on education while he thinks about carbon,” said Braun, who sits on the current education funding task force.
Braun and Magendanz, however, both credit Inslee’s executive director of policy, Matt Steuerwalt, for his work in facilitating the work group and the funding task force.
The best path for Inslee this year — if he’s re-elected — is to put out some ideas and see how lawmakers and education advocates react, said Korsmo, of the League of Education Voters.
Then, the governor can “see what other proposals are on the table, and see what we can cobble together on the table,” said Korsmo. But, she added: “How do we compel the two chambers of the Legislature to get to an agreement?”