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Legislature’s school debate lurches into gear

The dome of the state Capitol Building. Credit: Jim Heising

The state’s school funding debate managed to lurch forward last week, as Senate Republicans released a long-awaited education plan just as their Democratic counterparts unsuccessfully tried to force a vote on extending local levy funding.

The Republican proposal, disclosed Friday after weeks of waiting, follows the broad strokes of a plan disclosed to Crosscut earlier, increasing the proportion of school expenses paid by the state using a so-called “levy swap,” where locally-imposed property taxes are reduced and state property taxes are increased. Under the Republican plan, the state would increase starting teacher salaries and its baseline funding for each student.

The plan would impose additional accounting and transparency guidelines on schools and ban teacher strikes.

Senate Democratic leaders responded skeptically to the plan, but stopped short of offering major criticisms, saying too few specifics were available for them to know which parts they might agree or disagree with.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said the plan seemed to differ on key points, including the size of the tax, from a version of the plan Democrats had seen.

“Now the numbers have changed, so I would still say we don’t have a plan,” Ranker said. Ranker is the top Democrat on the influential the Ways and Means committee, and has been part of education funding discussions.

“On the finance side, there’s virtually no new money in it,” said Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “It’s a shell game that doesn’t achieve the spirit of what McCleary is about.”

Democrats have repeatedly suggested that the state needs more money overall, while Republicans have argued that part of the answer is simply shifting existing state revenues to schools.

The release of the plan is the latest episode in a long-running debate over education funding in the state. In its 2012 McCleary decision, the state Supreme Court ruled the state was constitutionally required to fund basic K-12 education; local school districts now collectively pay billions toward that themselves, using local property taxes.

This year, both Democratic and Republican legislators on a bipartisan task force were scheduled to unveil competing plans to replace that money with state funds before the session started. Democrats on the task force presented a plan, including proposed funding sources and levels; Republicans presented a set of general “guiding principles.” Friday’s plan represented the first specifics to emerge from Senate Republicans about how to put those principles into action.

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said the most important part of the plan is its new funding distribution model. The plan repeals the state’s “prototypical school model,” which uses a baseline for an average school, and then adjusts it up or down, and replaces it with the per-student funding.

“It all comes down to targeting money to the kids that need it most,” said Fain, the Senate majority floor leader.

Under the per-student model, schools receive a flat $12,500 per student from the state. Students that fall into special categories, like students who don’t speak English as a first language, or students with learning disabilities, would qualify for additional funds, also distributed per-student.

Still, the total amount of revenue the Republican plan would inject into schools from state coffers was unavailable Friday, at least from Fain, the only Republican who showed up to the Senate.

At least one indication of the total impact of the plan can be gleaned from numbers already available from the state, however. In 2015, the state property tax was $2.14 per $1,000 of assessed property value; the Republican plan would increase that by $1.80, to $3.96 per thousand dollars of value. In 2015 that $2.14 tax generated about $2 billion — so some simple arithmetic indicates the increase would yield about another $1.6 billion yearly, or around $3 billion every two years. Multiple sources have placed the cost of filling the state’s education funding gap between $3 to $4 billion every two years.

The plan also contains what is essentially a voter-approval clause: At an unspecified date, likely in the upcoming November election, the entire plan would be put up for a vote on the state ballot, giving taxpayers a chance to bless it — or reject it.

The release of the plan accompanied dramatic developments on another education battlefield: the debate over whether to authorize schools to levy their local property taxes at existing levels again next year. Under a provision known as the levy cliff, the authority is set to be scaled back. In the past, the Legislature has extended the authority as a matter of course, but this year prominent Republicans proposed delaying that, as a way to force the Legislature to supply state money to schools or risk teacher layoffs.

That debate took a dramatic turn after the Tuesday resignation of Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, to take a job with the Trump administration. Dansel’s departure creates a temporary 24-24 tie in the Senate, where Republicans had previously held a one-vote majority, and the Democratic minority floor leader, Sen. Marko Liias, said Thursday the Democrats intended to use the temporary tie to force a vote on extending the levy cliff the following day.

Democrats said that they believed that if they could force the issue to an open vote on the floor, some Republicans would vote with them.

But that move failed Friday, when Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib denied a procedural request from Democrats that would have paved the way for the floor vote. Democratic legislators tried to pivot to a backup plan, but hit the end of their leash when one of their own members left the floor early, apparently to attend to family matters. That put them one excruciating vote short.

In his ruling, which was read aloud on the Senate floor, Habib seemed almost to chide the Democrats for trying to take advantage of the absence of a senator to force a vote.

“A member does not need to be present to be a member,” Habib’s decision noted. “Being a member doesn’t end at the chamber doors.”

With that, what had been expected to be a dramatic procedural fight came to an abrupt end. Walking off the floor of the Senate after the loss, Liias confirmed that although one of the rules invoked during procedural sparring would automatically trigger a special Senate session over the weekend, Democrats would not be pursuing the move further.

Part of that could be due to the structure of the Republican plan, which includes some provisions for the levy cliff: As part of its voter-approval clause, the state plan would automatically roll back levy funding if voters approved it, or automatically extend it if they did not.

At least some Democratic legislators also saw a silver lining to the week’s events: The release of the Republican’s long-delayed education plan.

“It is a positive thing that they put out a plan,” said Sen. Andy Billig of Spokane, the Democrats’ deputy minority leader. “Now that they put out a plan, we can start negotiating it.”

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