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Originally published Monday, January 19, 2009 at 12:05 AM

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Education leaders focus on future despite economy

State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe says she won't let the state's budget deficit paralyze her or the Senate Education Committee she leads.

Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE —

State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe says she won't let the state's budget deficit paralyze her or the Senate Education Committee she leads.

McAuliffe and her counterpart on the House Education Committee, Rep. Dave Quall, both expect plenty of work during the legislative session even if a projected $6 billion budget deficit means there's no new money for education or anything else.

"In this budget reality, we'll just have to set the stage for when there is an opportunity to spend dollars again," said McAuliffe, D-Bothell.

Education priorities will include taking another look at the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, figuring out how to improve the way the state pays for K-12 education, helping school districts remain stable during the economic downturn, and working on the achievement gap between rich and poor children of different races.

In her pre-session budget proposal, Gov. Chris Gregoire set the stage for budget cuts in education, from preschool through college. McAuliffe said many of those cuts will be hard to avoid, such as delays in teacher raises.

"These are tough times and we all have to be part of the solution," McAuliffe said.

Quall, D-Mount Vernon, agreed that it would take big-ticket items like teacher raises to balance the budget, but predicted the final budget would not mirror's the governor's proposal exactly.

He said he has been inspired by President-elect Obama's talk of shared sacrifices: "It's a concept that we don't think a lot about in our country."

Mary Lindquist, president of the state teacher's union, said the message she is bringing to Olympia this year is: Economic downturns are a time to step up and invest in education.

"It's hard to think about the efforts we've made over the past few years and then to be hit with this deficit," Lindquist said. "We have to continue to move forward. It's important to the economic recovery."

Money was flowing more freely during the previous two legislative sessions.

The 2008 Legislature put millions more toward helping students meet the state standards and graduate from high school, and added millions to the higher education budget to make space for more students at state colleges and universities.

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Lawmakers also gave teachers and community college staff a 4.4 percent catch-up raise and continued a phase-in of free daylong kindergarten.

The 2007 Legislature used a budget surplus to boost college enrollment by 9,700 students, and increase spending on K-12 education by more than $1 billion for the current biennium.

Gregoire's proposed state budget for 2009-2011 biennium would strike $8.5 million from early learning programs, $800 million from kindergarten through 12th grade spending, and $375.7 million from higher education.

One way lawmakers may counter Gregoire's budget cuts is with "revenue enhancements," more commonly known as tax increases.

Lindquist, newly minted Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, and the chair of the tax force looking at school finance reform have all talked about raising taxes as an alternative to cutting budgets.

Some have suggested asking citizens to vote on a tax increase, an idea at least one lawmaker calls that taking the easy way out of a complex situation.

Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, said both Republicans and Democrats made campaign promises not to raise taxes. He considers putting the idea on the ballot just cheap theatrics that would likely force the Legislature to reconvene after the ballot measure fails.

"We're adults. We get paid to make difficult, adult decisions," said Anderson, who was among the lawmakers who served on the Basic Education Joint Task Force, which will present its ideas for spending more on education during this Legislative session.

About 40 percent of the state's general fund goes to education. In each two-year budget cycle, about $15 billion goes toward the education of Washington's 1 million school children in kindergarten through 12th grade. Washington ranks 42nd in the nation in the amount of money per child the state spends in the classroom, according to federal statistics.

The new schools chief plans to detail some of his ideas Monday when he meets with the Senate Education Committee.

So far, Dorn has spoken to lawmakers about making the WASL shorter, more diagnostic, computerized and with faster results. During a House Education Committee meeting this past week, he asked lawmakers to give him more leeway with his own budget by eliminating some legislative mandates that require him to hire people to do certain jobs.

"I'm optimistic. I think it's a great time for change," he said a few days before he was sworn in as the new superintendent.

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On the Net:

Legislature: http://www1.leg.wa.gov/legislature

Superintendent of Public Instruction: http://www.k12.wa.us/

Gov. Gregoire's Education Budget: http://www.ofm.wa.gov/budget09/highlights/#education

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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