It became obvious Thursday that lawmakers are going to need a few more weeks to hammer out a politically feasible, financially sound solution to the state Supreme Court's McCleary mandate. Until legislators hatch a plan to bring our basic education system up to constitutionally acceptable standards, they will remain in contempt of that court.
That few-more-weeks estimate, by the way, assumes immediate, good-faith, number-crunching and negotiating free of political gamesmanship. In short, a tall order.
Any solution reached in early May, while providing feisty sound bites from politicians, probably won't survive due diligence by all parties. The overall issue is too complicated for a quick fix; key pieces of legislation were unveiled — by both sides — just three weeks ago. The bind lawmakers find themselves in at the moment dates back to 2012 when the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state wasn't meeting its constitutional duty to provide a good basic education in Grades K-3. Further complicating the picture is the 2014 voter initiative requiring lawmakers to fix the same problem in Grades 4-12.
The Legislature's regular session ended on April 26. A 30-day special session on education and other budget conflicts began on Wednesday, April 29. On Thursday, the Washington House Appropriations Committee discussed three Senate bills and one House bill, put in play in April, to fix how the state and local school districts pay for basic education.
Most of the sponsors of those bills engaged in the discussion: Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup; Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam; Sen. Christine Rolfes, D- Bainbridge Island; and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and chairman of the appropriations committee. Also present was the House GOP point man on education, Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah.
Each proposed a different scheme to increase education funding and comply with the Supreme Court order. Dammeier's bill uses property tax reform to pay for education improvements. Ditto Hargrove's bill. Rolfes would restructure teacher pay. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island proposes a capital gains tax. The main budget proposal from the House uses another version of a capital gains tax to pay a big chunk of the Supreme Court-ordered obligations. The appropriations committee staff had spent three weeks studying the bills, comparing them to make note of the gaps, differences and similarities.
On Thursday, the bills' sponsors acknowledged that none of their ideas solved the dual problems of providing a) an immediate 2015-2017 budget fix and b) the long-term funding solution that the Supreme Court demanded be in hand by the summer, or else. (Justices have threatened yet-to-be-defined sanctions.) Instead of a comprehensive solution, some of sponsors discussed a menu approach: choosing the best parts of each bill to craft one grand solution.
"There are things to like about each one of them, and there are things to hate about each one of them," said Shawn Lewis, who represents the Washington Education Association.
Thursday's nuanced public discussion provided a stark contrast to the black-and-white rhetoric that has been tossed back and forth in the Capitol Dome for the last two months. That rhetoric has focused on whether meeting the Supreme Court's requirements requires generating new revenue. If so, it comes down to a battle between the GOP's preference (property tax reforms) versus the Democrats desire for a capital gains tax.
Regardless of how that revenue debate is resolved, Thursday's discussions and the extensive staff analysis showed that there are a wide range of loaded issues that need to be addressed. How, for example, should lawmakers define basic pay for teachers, since salaries are the biggest piece of "basic education?" How should they best calculate regional cost-of-living differences? Account for local maintenance-and-operations levies? Address special ed programs? Phase in any tax reforms? And specific approaches notwithstanding, what about the educational and financial ripple effects? If a small town's biggest business — say, a mill — were to shut down how would that change the property tax picture for a local school district?
"It is clear by now that this is not a simple issue," said Stephen Nielsen, assistant superintendent for finance of the Puget Sound Educational Service District.
"There's just a lot of moving parts," said Ross Hunter. But Hunter can see some daylight. He has a bill in play that would create a Washington Education Funding Council: eight legislators and one representative each from the offices of the governor, the state treasurer and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That 11-person task force, working against a series of interim deadlines, would map out levy reforms and teachers salary measures through June 30, 2017. That could help the Legislature get its work on the Supreme Court's salary and levy reform mandates in place by the 2018-2019 school year, which is the high court's final deadline.
Feedback on Hunter's proposal, from the general public and education groups, has been positive. His bill, it seems to them, is a good idea,but some believe might not produce results fast enough. But can it actually get through the legislative process?