A lot of education reform bills are in play in the Washington Legislature. But none so far directly tackles the shortcomings that the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that the state must fix.
When the Supreme Court told the state in early 2012 that it has a legal obligation to improve K-12 education, the required upgrades boiled down to improving teacher-student ratios, and increasing the amount of instruction.
Bottom line: The court believes a lot more teachers are needed. That translates to digging up more money.
The money question had been on a back burner for the past two months with lots of speculation and few solid figures. Republicans believe $800 million to $1 billion in extra money is needed to meet the Supreme Court mandate — known as "the McCleary decision" — for 2013-2015. Democrats put the McCleary amount for 2013-2015 at $1 billion to $1.7 billion in extra cash.
Next week, those guesstimates of how much to spend will start to become less vague.
On Wednesday, the Washington Economic and Revenue Forecast Council will unveil its quarterly revenue forecast. That will provide figures for the Senate Republican and House Democratic budget gurus — who have control of spending questions in each chamber — to plug into their calculations for their proposed 2013-2015 operating budgets. And the education portions will be the biggest chunks of each budget.
The Senate Republicans, who are supported by two Democrats to form the Majority Coalition, are scheduled to announce their budget proposal between March 20 and April 1. The House Democrats will unveil their proposal a few days later.
The most likely scenario is that Republicans and Democrats will have a big gap between their education budget proposals. Senate Republicans will likely try to put out a proposal that backs their contention that no new taxes will be needed. Democrats are expected to use their proposal to prove their case that new taxes will be needed.
Republicans stress their slogan of "reform before revenue." Their argument is that not much more money is needed, but it needs to be spent smarter. Democrats say much of a good system is already is in place, but the Legislature has never adequately funded it.
"Both sides have a legitimate claim. ... I tend to say we've never thrown money at the problem," said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island and the No. 2 Democrat on the Senate Education Committee.
"In the Senate, we're not so worried about McCleary," said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina and leader of the Senate's 23-Republican-two-Democrat Majority Coalition. He later added: "It's not just about the money. ... We're in this for student achievement" in meeting the needs of the post-high-school world.
Tom noted the 2013-2015 state operating budget is expected to be $2 billion greater in revenue than the 2011-2013 budget. "That's $2 billion in extra money," he said. "We need to assure that the dollars are in the right place," said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia and the House Republicans' chief budget writer.
Earlier rough estimates in Olympia predicted the 2013-2015 overall state operating budget to be approximately $33.3 billion with no growth in non-education programs. That compares to the $31.2 billion — including $13.65 billion for K-12 education — in the 2011-2013 budget.
On Thursday this week, House Republicans unveiled their education-funding plan. However, the Republicans are a minority in the Democratic-controlled House, plus their plan solely addressed education, while barely acknowledging the presence of the rest of the 2013-215 operating budget. Alexander said he has been keeping tabs with his Senate Republican budget-writing counterparts.
House Republicans contended that the McCleary fix-it work for 2013-2015 can be accomplished with $817 million — the lowest formally presented estimate so far. And they argued that the McCleary work can be accomplished without raising taxes. House Republicans said savings and transfers from other state programs will help them tackle this goal. Money for K-12 education, higher education, corrections and care for the elderly would not be touched under the House Republican plan, Alexander said. He acknowledged the House Republican plan would trim programs for the non-elderly poor.
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