Here are five things to help you follow the debate.
What is the McCleary decision?
The Washington Supreme Court decided in January 2012 that the Legislature was not meeting its constitutional duty to fully pay for basic education with state dollars. The court gave lawmakers until 2018 to pay for the school reform ideas they had already approved, to fund the Legislature's definition of basic education, find a sustainable source of money for schools, and to take back the financial burden from school districts, which use local levies to fill the gaps. McCleary is the last name of a family from Chimacum, who agreed to represent all parents in the state by having their name on the lawsuit brought by a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups.
What is the Legislature planning to do?
A group of lawmakers has been meeting for years to figure this out, since before King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick ruled in favor of the coalition, known as Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, in 2010. They came up with a summary of what they think the court is asking for and how much money it will cost to pay for it.
The list includes: free, all-day kindergarten for every kid; fewer kids in the early grade classrooms; more money for high schools so they can make students earn 24 credits to graduate; the entire cost of student transportation; the entire cost of classroom and building materials and classroom supplies; and money to make salaries and school staffing more equitable across the state. The total bill adds up to between $4 billion and $8 billion, depending on who is doing the adding.
Those numbers do not include school construction costs to provide additional classrooms these reforms would require. Only the higher estimates include dollars to pay for the extra teachers for these new classrooms.
The state spends other money on education that does not come under the definition of basic education, including preschool and higher education.
What's happening with the state budget this year?
Lawmakers have three main budget proposals before them: one from the governor, one from the Senate and one from the House. They all add money to the K-12 budget to answer the McCleary decision, but their approaches differ in many ways.
All three add money to full-day kindergarten, classroom supplies and transportation. The House Democrats and the governor also put more money into upper grade instructional hours and class size reduction. Since the three budgets take different approaches to McCleary, it's hard to compare, but the range of proposed new dollars is about $1 billion in the Senate to about $1.3 billion in the House. No plans are on the table for a new ongoing source of money for public schools.
How do the lawsuit plaintiffs think the Legislature is doing?
Speaking for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, which sued the state, Nick Brossoit, superintendent of the Edmonds School District, says all the budgets before the Legislature right now take baby steps toward meeting the Supreme Court order. Brossoit says it's really not that complicated: the state testified in court that it had been working on reforming education funding.
The state presented a chart of all its plans and those items on the list add up to nearly $7 billion, not including inflation and school construction. The state has five years to fulfill its promises to the court. $7 billion divided by five years equals $1.4 billion a year. So in the coalition's opinion, the Legislature needs to find $2.8 billion for the 2003-2015 biennia if it wants to make a meaningful down payment in this budget. Brossoit notes: the tough economy is not a strong legal argument for ignoring the court order.
What happens if the Supreme Court doesn't like what the Legislature is doing?
The Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to make yearly reports on its progress toward fully funding basic education by 2018. The court expressed displeasure with the Legislature's first report, filed this past fall. No one but the people sitting on the state Supreme Court know what they're going to do if they are not satisfied this year that the Legislature is making meaningful progress. But lots of people have speculated about what some call the "nuclear option."
The coalition says the following are possible responses from an unhappy Supreme Court: The court could essentially rewrite the state budget, ordering the Legislature to spend certain amounts on education. It could force the sale of state-owned to pay for compliance with the court ruling. It could stop state payments for things other than basic education. And it could fine legislators for contempt. These actions are unprecedented in Washington state and would likely raise concerns over the separation of powers in state government.
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