Schools? Legislators trying to get their story straight

Facing a Supreme Court order to improve state school funding, Republicans and Democrats are having difficulty agreeing on what to tell justices about what they have done.
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Rep. Gary Alexander

Facing a Supreme Court order to improve state school funding, Republicans and Democrats are having difficulty agreeing on what to tell justices about what they have done.

After two hours in a close-door meeting Wednesday, a bipartisan legislative committee could not decide on what to tell the Washington Supreme Court about how well the statehouse is complying with the McCleary ruling on fixing K-12 education.

Everyone agrees on the basic facts and figures.

But a special committee's Republicans and Democrats disagree how to put that information in context to the Supreme Court.

In its recently completed 2013 session, the Legislature appropriated an extra $982 million for 2013-2015 to begin complying with a court ruling that the state has failed to meet its constitutional duties in providing basic education to its school kids. The ruling focused mostly on teacher-to-student ratios in grades K-3, raising the number of credits to graduate high school , increasing the number of high school hours per student annually and providing sufficient support for those efforts. 

Initial estimates are that this will take an extra $4 billion to $4.5 billion through the 2017-2019. That means more than $982 million will be needed in each of the next two budget biennia.

The ruling also called for a ratio of a teacher-student ratio of 1-to-17 in kindergarten through third grade 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.

The Legislature must submit a progress report to the Supreme Court by Aug. 29. The plaintiffs in the McCleary case will also provide the court with their opinions on the progress.

The eight-legislator committee — two House Republicans, two Senate Republicans, two House Democrats, and two Senate Democrats — failed to agree Wednesday during a meeting in Burien on how to frame the basic figures in a larger picture for the court. Both sides hope to reach an agreement by next week.

Republicans and Democrats disagree on the exact boundaries of what is "basic education," said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia. The report needs to be able to hold up under scrutiny by the McCleary plaintiffs and to preserve flexibility for future legislatures, said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle. The plaintiffs are include the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, which is a statewide coalition of community groups, public school districts and education organizations.

Alexander and Frockt expressed optimism that the two parties will soon resolve their differences.

The Republican draft of the proposed committee report mentions passage of some Republican-prompted bills to improve K-12 education, which the Democratic draft does not. The Democratic draft report mentions the fact that the Legislature has not funded voter-approved cost-of-living salary increases to teachers — increases that have been unfunded since 2009-2010. The Republican draft does not mention that. That suspension of funding provided $295 million to the Legislature to help it meet its McCleary requirements. 

Both sides' draft mentioned that the Legislature restored a previous 1.9 percent salary reduction for teachers and a previous 3 percent salary reduction for administrators.

The Democrats' draft also asked the Supreme Court to clarify what the overall fix-it plan should generally look like and to define what "progress" means as the Legislature tackles interim steps on a long-term fix. The Democrats also want to ask for guidance on how teachers' salaries fit in the constitutional picture.

The Legislature appropriated $15.208 billion overall to education for 2013-2015, which is slightly more than 45 percent of the state's $33.5 billion operating budget for this biennium.

The eight members of the special committee are Alexander; Frockt; Sen. Christine Rolfes D- Bainbridge Island; Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island; Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn; Rep. Susan Fagan, R-Pullman; Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle; and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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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 and on Twitter at @johnstang_8