Legislature is running out of places to hide from school funding decisions

New information and the march of time are putting pressure on lawmakers to face education budget questions.
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New information and the march of time are putting pressure on lawmakers to face education budget questions.

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.

Senate Republicans have not hinted yet what their education-funding plan will be. 

In December 2012, House and Senate Democrats announced four different possible plans — actually scenarios to be studied — to tackle the McCleary situation. These scenarios are different combinations of various ideas for raising revenue, such as tinkering with property taxes, creating a capital gains tax, temporarily increasing the state sales tax, closing tax exemptions and transferring a few hundred million dollars of school transportation costs out of the operating budget to the transportation budget. Also some Democratic scenarios call for not allowing expiration of a beer tax, a hospital tax and a 0.3 percent business and occupation service surcharge — all due to sunset soon.

Comparing the Democrat and House Republican scenarios is difficult because the state has until 2018 to meet the Supreme Court's mandate. That means radically different 2013-2015 scenarios could still lead to fulfilling all the McCleary obligations by 2019.

Also, many of the Democrats' $1 billion to $1.7 billion extra-needed-money scenarios include extra money for teachers, who have had pay cuts and always have been denied pay raises for years. The House Republican plan actually identified a $1.5 billion proposed increase in education money -- $817 million for McCleary, $86 million for other new programs, and the rest for other purposes. That means Republicans and Democrats could be tackling many similar problems, but are using different ways to account for the money.

Republicans are dead set against any tax increases and against prolonging any taxes that are due to sunset. Democrats contend new tax revenue is the only realistic way to deal with all of the McCleary obligations.

Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw and ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, pointed to the lack of any no-tax scenario in the four Democratic education funding plans as proof that the opposing party wants new taxes regardless of the situation. "They're holding kids hostage for a tax increase," she said.

The Supreme Court recently gave Democrats a break on the tax issue when it ruled unconstitutional the requirement that two-thirds of the Senate and House are needed to raise taxes or to close tax exemptions. That voter-imposed requirement had effectively stopped every tax-increase move. Despite that ruling, Democratic legislative leaders voiced politics-related skittishness about raising taxes, saying that would be only a last resort.

The Republican anti-tax stance irked Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell and ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. She groused earlier this week after a 35-12 Senate vote to loosen an alcoholic beverage law. "I'm enraged that we can get a two-thirds vote for this, but not a two-thirds vote for education(-related taxes). I'm enraged," she said.

The $800 million to $1.7 billion McCleary shortfall for 2013-2015 is not happening in a vacuum.

Until recently, the state expected a roughly $1 billion shortfall on top of the McCleary funding needsl. A few weeks ago, however, state calculations showed that a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling on estate taxes will trim $160 million in revenue. And on Thursday, the state said it miscalculated some Medicaid shuffling, adding another $300 million to the 2013-2015 shortfall.

So the state has a $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion non-education shortfall plus an $800 million to $1.7 billion McCleary-related shortfall. That translates to the Legislature needing to somehow find $2.2 billion to $3.2 billion in extra money, savings or a combination of the two for 2013-2015.

So what does the McCleary ruling require the state to do by 2019? That rundown includes:

  • Reducing teacher-to-student ratios in grades K-3, ages when experts say fundamental learning must take place to produce results rippling into the higher grades. Currently there are 25.2 students for each teacher in those grades. The 2011-13 budget called for reducing that ratio to 24.1-to-1. The McCleary ruling orders that ratio to be reduced to 17 students in grades K-3 by 2017-2018.
  • Giving poverty-level schools priority in class-size reduction, with poverty defined as situations where more than 50 percent of a school's students participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program.
  • Increasing Washington's current minimum number of credits for high school graduation from 20 to 24. Currently, different school districts require varying numbers of credits to graduate, with the average being 22. Increased costs will be tied to which extra courses are added.
  • Increasing the amount of instruction in grades 7-12 to 1,080 hours a year per student by no later than 2014-2015. The state Office of Financial Management believes the state average is currently roughly 1,000 instructional hours per student per school year.

Beyond the big money questions, a number of education reform bills are in play.

The Senate Majority Coalition pushed a series of bills that drew mixed reactions from the minority Democrats. A bill to assign letter grades to schools, with a late revision that extra money go to the worst performing ones, passed 26-23. A bill requiring teachers and principals to agree when a teacher is assigned to a new school passed 27-22.  A bill to have the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction intervene in the 10 lowest-performing schools passed 30-19.

And a bill to retain students in the third grade if they cannot read at a certain level passed 35-13. "It passed without a funding commitment," Rolfes noted.

"We're doing all these little bills," Rolfes said. "It's just window (dressing). ... You've got to fully fund basic education to close the achievement gap."


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8