On Monday, I reported on the latest efforts of the Joint Task Force on Education Funding, a bipartisan panel of legislators and citizens formed to address the Supreme Court's McCleary decision. The decision, delivered last year, found that Washington has failed in its constitutional duty to amply provide for the education of children in Washington state. The legislature, it was ruled, must develop a basic education program to meet that mandate — a program that is fully funded through "regular and dependable" tax sources. In response, the 2012 Legislature established the Joint Task Force on Education Funding.
The task force has been meeting since August and has just two more meetings scheduled before it completes its report to the legislature, which is due by December 31. At its most recent meeting on November 20, the panel's chair, Jeff Vincent, issued an invitation to business, labor, and education organizations to submit ideas for consideration. Since we, as taxpayers and citizens concerned about the education of future generations, are all stakeholders in this effort, our ideas, either in the form of public testimony at task force meetings or direct communication with members, should also help shape their report.
As one individual stakeholder who has been following the panel’s deliberations over the past four months, and the state tax structure debate for a much longer time, here are a few ideas they might consider when they draft their report.
- Focus tax and spending recommendations on the education budget and not the larger general fund budget.
The task force should not try to guess what the next and subsequent legislatures will be asked to fund and cut. Suggesting even token cuts in programs like health and human services is problematic, when cuts in those and other areas in the last two biennia have already been have been so significant and detrimental to those programs, totaling approximately $11 billion. Staff to the task force reviewed these recent budget cuts at the November 20 meeting.
The assumption that funding of other programs will continue at current levels is also questionable. If economic recovery begins to pick up speed, it can be expected that constituencies like higher education will push for a return to higher funding levels.
Then there is the uncertainty hanging over general fund revenue projections. At last week's meeting, the task force assumed that general fund revenue will grow annually by 4.5 percent. This may have been the average in the recent past, but we are now in a recessionary period and revenue growth will likely be much less. It's possible that revenue may even decrease, as it did in 2009 and 2010.
Developing economic and political issues in China, Europe and the other Washington could all result in decreased state revenues, as the Economic and Revenue Forecasting Council emphasized in a September report. The impending “fiscal cliff” and “sequestration” negotiations will have major importance to the state; particularly given the significant military component of Washington’s economy and our dependence on federal program grants.
2. Describe in detail all important K-12 enhancements, including their costs, benefits and phase-in schedules.
The public will have to be sold on the need for increased education spending. This was reinforced by the comfortable passage of Initiative 1185, which re-established the super-majority rule for tax increases. The report should provide ample evidence that enhancements to current educational practices will actually improve educational outcomes, and that there will be tracking in place to ensure that progress is made.
This will be especially important for enhancements that go beyond what is already required, as defined by a 2010 bill (HB 2776) that defined basic education. Things like increased salaries, improved transitional bilingual instruction, and career and college readiness programs go beyond this definition.
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