Spokane Republican wants big changes in school improvement spending

Sen. Michael Baumgartner Credit: John Stang

Sen. Mike Baumgartner wants to to revise how the state complies with a 2012 Supreme Court ruling to improve the school system.

Baumgartner, R-Spokane, announced plans Thursday to introduce a bill that would dramatically change the Legislature's plan of attack on improving public education. He would change the definition of "basic education" in Washington as a major part of the revision. In broad strokes, his plan would de-emphasize improving teacher-student ratios in grades 2 and 3 and increase emphasis on supporting students in pre-schools and college.

“Not only will the (bill) significantly improve educational outcomes for early-learning students as well as provide an unprecedented opportunity for Washington students to go to college, but it creates a better definition of education on which we can build the world-class, 21-century education system that our kids deserve," he said.

He added, “I believe the (bill) is the common-sense solution to a policy impasse the Legislature created when it tried to put a dollar figure on the term 'basic education.' "

Baumgartner said his bill would spend the same $4 billion to $4.5 billion estimate to be needed to meet the 2012 Supreme Court ruling's deadline of mid-2019, but would reallocate the cash to what he believes are more efficient ways to improve schools.

In 2012, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state has not been meeting its constitutional obligations in providing a "basic education" for Washington's students. The court zeroed in a 2009 law — passed then mostly by Democrats and opposed then mostly by Republicans — that sets a ratio of one teacher per 17 students in Grades K-3. Currently, the staffing ratio is actually one teacher per 25.3 students. The court decision also calls for increasing the number of credits to graduate high school and slightly increasing the number of hours taught annually in Grades 9-12.

The bottom line: The Supreme Court ordered more elementary school teachers to be hired with state money to handle smaller classes. The state must also pay for the extra facilities to handle the additional, smaller classes.

So far, the Legislature has appropriated $982 million for 2013-2015. Gov. Jay Inslee has been trying to persuade a reluctant Senate Majority Coalition Caucus  — 24 Republicans and two Democrats — to consider adding another $200 million for 2014-2015.

Republicans in both chambers have balked at the $4 billion-to-$4.5 billion estimate, and have argued that reforms in the schools can improve education better than raising extra money to spend.

The Supreme Court has recently disagreed, declaring that the Legislature has already fallen behind on providing adequate funding to meet the 2012 ruling. It has ordered the Legislature to present it a catch-up plan by April 30.

A big question in Olympia is whether the Republicans — already critical of the 2012 decision — will defy the court on the funding matter. Another question is whether the Supreme Court can force the Republican legislators to do something they don't want to do, Republicans, including Baumgartner, argue that the court has exceeded its constitutional powers by ordering the Legislature to make specific appropriations.

If passed, Baumgartner's proposal would seem to drastically revamp the Supreme Court's 2012 remedies.

He would leave aside improvements in the teacher-student ratios in grades 2-3, and reroute that money to pre-school programs, which be able to serve roughly 6,800 more 3-and 4-year-olds. Some of the cash would be available to pay "top teachers" $100,000 a year. He said rerouting the grade 2-3 money would free up $600 million for the other measures. His bill would keep the student-teacher-ratio targets intact for kindergarten and first grade. Baumgartner contended research show improved ratios would help in kindergarten and first gate, but would have diminishing returns in grades 2-3.

Some of the second- and third-grade student-teacher-ratio money would go to high-poverty school districts. And it would pay the top 1,200 teachers in the state with $100,000 annual salaries for two years. The annual $120 million for this program would be divided among school districts according to size. Principals would nominate "top teacher" candidates for each district. The local school board would select the top teachers. A top teacher would have to be renominated and reselected after two years in order to stay at that pay grade.

And Baumgartner proposes to marry this plan with another of his bills currently in the Senate Higher Education Committee, which would limit college tuition hikes to 10 percent of the average Washington resident's annual salary. The 2012 Supreme Court ruling did not address college tuition.

Meanwhile, two Democrats, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, and Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, have introduced bills in their chambers to speed compliance with the Supreme Court's mandated teacher-student ratios, and to expand the class size reductions to improving teacher-student ratios in grades 4-12.

Goodman and Liias' bills will likely hit roadblocks in the Senate, which is controlled by the majority coalition. Baumgartner's bill will likely hit a roadblock in the House, which is controlled by Democrats, who want to follow the Supreme Court's path.

However, a bipartisan effort is underway to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling on increasing the credits required to graduate and expanding the annual hours of instruction in high school. Sens. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, and Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, introduced a bill earlier this week to put those requirements into effect in the 2015-16 school year.

At least at this point, there's no way to know whether the Supreme Court would accept Baumgartner's proposed deviations from its 2012 ruling.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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