Legislature agrees on its education story for the court

But will the state Supreme Court accept the update on the Legislature's efforts to improve schools?
Seattle Public Schools' annual guide: Happy smiles but will kids get enough help from the state?

Seattle Public Schools' annual guide: Happy smiles but will kids get enough help from the state?

The Legislature must scrape up an extra $1.2 billion to $2.2 billion in education money for 2015-2017 to comply with the Washington Supreme Court's mandate to fix the state's schools.

With that wide range up in the air, there's an increasing chance that the Supreme Court might eventually have to say how much it believes is sufficient for the next budget cycle. Some lawmakers are already pointing to the upcoming 2015 Legislature as critical to determining how well and how quickly the Legislature complies with the court mandate.

A Senate-House special committee unanimously approved a report Tuesday on the state's progress toward complying with the 2012 "McCleary ruling," which said the state is not meeting its constitutional obligations to provide a good basic education for Washington's students. The report had to be readied for the court by the end of Wednesday.

The McCleary ruling sparked Republican protests that the court is overstepping the separation-of powers boundary, with the GOP leaders pondering whether the Supreme Court can order budget-related decisions against the Legislature's wishes. Tuesday's report voices hopes that such a constitutional conflict could be headed off. 

The report says the Legislature allocated $1.04 billon in 2013-2015 toward meeting a target of $4 billion to $4.5 billion in extra cash from 2013 to mid-2019. The Legislature also complied with court-required increases in the number of credits to graduate and hours taught annually in high school. But the court's biggest and most expensive mandate is to dramatically improve teacher-student ratios in grades K-3. That translates to hiring more teachers and building more classrooms — measures that the Legislature has barely addressed.

Complicated technical factors in apportioning teacher salary increases plus some complex levy-related matters contribute to the unresolved $1.2-$2.2 billion range in the 2015-2017 estimates.

Tuesday's report to the Supreme Court acknowledges wide Democrat-Republican splits on cost estimates and basic funding approaches. Democrats want to close tax breaks and raise taxes. Republicans want no new taxes, maintenance of existing tax breaks and shifts of money to education from other state programs.

It is unknown when the Supreme Court will say what it thinks about the Legislature's report.

However, Randy Dorn, Washington superintendent of public instruction, criticized the new report as empty of substance.

"The 58-page document released today says very little, and is far from complete," Dorn said in a written statement. "It isn't even a plan. It reads like a small history lesson. It includes a list of bills that 'are meaningful because they show significant work is occurring.' The problem is that none of these bills passed the Legislature."

Dorn added, "The Legislature isn't going to take its responsibility seriously unless the court forces it to do so." 

In January, the Supreme Court said the Legislature is moving too slowly on its McCleary obligations and ordered a catch-up plan submitted by April 30, Wednesday. Also, the court criticized the Legislature for not mapping out its funding approaches for 2015-2017 and 2017-2019. And so far, the Legislature has not nailed down those details, the report acknowledged.

"We also acknowledge the fact that we still have a long way to go," said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington and a member of the Senate-House special committee that approved the report. "The real test will be in the next biennium." 

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

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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