Legislators admit they’re late on court-ordered school-aid plan
A progress report from lawmakers to the state Supreme Court admits they fell short this year of making a detailed plan for boosting school funding.
Seattle Times education reporter
In January, the state Supreme Court warned lawmakers they weren’t moving fast enough to adequately pay for basic education and told them to come up with a detailed year-by-year plan to get it done by the 2018 deadline.
In a progress report to the court Tuesday, lawmakers acknowledged that they failed to agree on such a timeline in their shortened 2014 session.
The court’s order in January stemmed from its 2012 decision in the McCleary case, when the justices agreed with a large group of parents, teachers and school districts who contended the Legislature was violating the state’s constitution by failing to provide ample funding for public education.
The court gave lawmakers until the 2017- 2018 school year to come up with enough money to meet the Legislature’s own definition of what it means to provide a basic education for the state’s 1 million schoolkids.
Estimates for what that would cost in additional education spending range from $3.5 billion to $7 billion per biennium, depending on whether the total includes more state money for teacher pay.
The two-year budget that was passed last year increased education spending by about $1 billion and this year’s shortened session nudged up additional spending by $58 million more.
Lawmakers disagree about how much ultimately will be needed to satisfy the court’s requirements.
“There’s disagreement about how much it’s going to take, there’s disagreement about where it’s going, there’s disagreement about where it’s coming from,” said state Sen. Steve Litzow, a Republican from Mercer Island. “It’s going to be hard work, but everybody is committed to making it happen.”
Lawmakers will have to come up with a big chunk of the final price tag — whatever it may be — when they write a new two-year budget in next year’s full session.
“They’re going to try to squeeze the last of it in the next four years,” said Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction. “It’s going to be very difficult to do unless they raise a significant amount of revenue, code word for raising taxes.”
Lawmakers may resurrect some ideas from the wreckage of this year’s failed education bills.
Tuesday’s progress report to the court asks it to “recognize that 2015 is the next and most critical year for the Legislature to reach the grand agreement needed” to meet the 2018 deadline.
Litzow said making significant progress in the next session is possible, but lawmakers will first have to get on the same page about money.
The ultimate price tag depends in part on whether the state picks up the full cost for paying teachers and staff instead of relying on school districts’ property-tax levies to supplement what the state provides.
State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, says he’s ready to have that debate this fall.
“You wouldn’t solve the whole teacher problem in the 2015-17 biennium, but you should solve a chunk of it,” Hunter said. “So you’re going to need to add somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion in 2015-17.”
The Supreme Court was explicit in its January order that it wanted to see more than promises about what the Legislature would do next year, said Thomas Ahearne, attorney for the plaintiffs in the McCleary case.
Ahearne hopes the court’s next order will push lawmakers harder.
“When legislators want to take immediate, concrete action and do something significant, they do,” Ahearne said. “But the court has to think of a way to make it so they want to do that.”
John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @jhigginsST