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Legislature wonders if Supreme Court will accept its homework assignment

Legislators are required to let state justices know how they are doing on meeting school funding obligations.
Rep. Gary Alexander

Rep. Gary Alexander

Rep. Jamie Pedersen

Rep. Jamie Pedersen State House of Representatives

So what does the Washington Supreme Court really want for public school students?

That's a huge unknown for state lawmakers, who face a deadline late this month to update the court on their progress in improving schools.

Legislators and staff members began diving more deeply into the question this week as they discussed putting together a report on the state's progress to comply with a court mandate to improve the state's basic education. But the court's McCleary decision dominated the past legislative session, and will likely dominate future ones. The court has ordered the state to complete the process of providing ample and fair funding to students across Washington by 2018.

Pieces of that question include: What's "steady progress"? What does a 2018 deadline really mean? If you measure progress on a make-believe linear graph, where does Washington stand? How does the lack of a cost-of-living raise for teachers factor in?

"Did they define 'steady progress?' " asked Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia.

"They did not define 'steady progress,' " replied Susan Mielke, attorney for the House K-12 Education Committee.

When the Legislature submits its progress report to the Supreme Court no later than Aug. 29, legislators need to ask for those clarifications, said Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, and a member of the eight-person House-Senate committee tasked with editing and approving the staff-written report.

Four members of that committee met Wednesday to discuss writing the report with staff members. Pedersen, Alexander, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, and Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, were present. The other four members are House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, Rep. Susan Fagan, R-Pullman, Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, and Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn. Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, who is not a committee member, also attended.

The Supreme Court held that Washington is failing to meet its constitutional obligations to provide the required basic education measures for grades K-12. The ruling focused mostly on teacher-to-student ratios in grades K-3, raising the number of credits to graduate high school to 24 and increasing the number of high school hours per student per year from roughly 1,000 to 1,080. Currently, Washington's high schools average 22 credits to graduate.

A legislative task force concluded in late 2012 that an extra $4 billion to $4.5 billion will be needed over the next six years to meet those requirements. Republicans on the task force dissented, with the House members saying less money is needed and the Senate Republican members not submitting an estimate. Ultimately, the Republican-oriented Senate and Democratic-dominated House settled on allocating $982 million for basic education improvements for 2013-2015. If the $4 billion estimate holds up, the Legislature will have to appropriate significantly more additional money than $982 million in each of the next two budget biennia.

The Supreme Court-related allocations for 2013-2015 will be spent on installing all-day kindergartens, improving the student-teacher ratios in kindergartens and first grades in the most impoverished schools, and bumping the number of instructional hours per year in high schools to 1,080 hours. Money will also go to equipment and other measures to support those expansions.

The ruling also called for a ratio of one-teacher-per-17-students in grades K-3 by 2017-2018. The current ratio is one to 1-24. The first year of the 2013-15 budget will reduce that ratio to 1-to-20.85 for kindergarten and first grade in the most impoverished school, and one-to-20.03 in those two grades for the same schools in the second year. The 2013-2015 budget does not address reducing ratios in the second and third grades

Although the Supreme Court's deadline to finish the improvements is 2018, the legislators and staff did not know whether 2018 means a calendar year, a fiscal year or a school year. "There's some room for interpretation," said assistant attorney general Dave Stolier.

Hanging over the upcoming report is how teacher cost-of-living raises — approved by the state's voters years ago — factor in. The Legislature has not funded those raises for six years. And it cut those cost-of-living raises out of the 2013-2015 budget. The Legislature did restore a 1.9 percent pay cut to teachers made in 2011.The Supreme Court worried about schools using local levies as the keystones to their teachers' salaries, said Kristen Fraser, counsel to the House Appropriations Committee.

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Posted Mon, Aug 12, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Not to be disrespectful of the Supreme Court but its opinion is not binding upon the legislature - however you interpret it. The legislature - all education interests elected and non-elected - are "interpreting" the opinion to mean what they want it to mean. In this way the Court is "being used" as a policy vehicle, and from my perspective this is not a good precedent.

There will never be enough money or enough reform for education, just as there will never be enough money or reform for the State's transportation program, environmental protection, or other important societal goals.

Is the next step for the Court an opinion on what constitues a healthy environment - clean air and clean water? Will the legislature be funding initiatives to reduce global warming and writing "Reports" on coal trains and terminals?

Legislators need to legislate and not use the Court as a cop-out. And the Court should not give them the opportunity to do so.

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