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Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

How the tab for education got so big

As lawmakers have expanded the definition of basic education, they've also increased the burden to pay.

OLYMPIA -- One of the state's most coveted entitlements is at the center of a billion-dollar battle in Olympia.
It is basic education, and the fight, surprisingly, is not on how much more money to spend on it. Democratic and Republican lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee agree it should be at least $1 billion.
They are divided on where those dollars should go to boost achievement of 1 million students and satisfy the state Supreme Court, which ruled last year that the state was failing to pay the full tab of the basic education program it had promised those enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade.
That tab is as large as it is because laws passed in 2009 and 2010 expanded the program of basic education and required expensive enhancements such as increasing hours of instruction and providing full-day kindergarten in every school.
What exactly is a basic education Washington taxpayers must cover?
It is teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. And it is testing students to see how well they've learned, and compiling reports to compare achievements of students statewide.
But it's much more than that.
In 2013, basic education means paying for all the books, buses and bodies: teachers, librarians, principals and custodians. It also means paying for computers and electricity, providing instruction for students with disabilities and those in detention centers, as well as offering career guidance to those desiring to attend college or seeking a job.
Lawmakers can define and redefine basic education the way they want when they want -- and they have. Supreme Court justices acknowledged this power in their 2012 decision.
"The program of basic education is not etched in constitutional stone," Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the majority. "The Legislature has an obligation to review the basic education program as the needs of students and the demands of society evolve."
Justices concluded the state needs to pay for the basic education it promises and was not upholding its financial side of its basic ed bargain with school districts.
Education, redefined
Washington's obligations regarding education are enshrined in the constitution and etched into law.
The constitution says the state has a "paramount duty … to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders." In 1977, amid legal wrangling on whether the state was living up to that edict, the Legislature approved the Basic Education Act to become one of the first states to sketch out a minimal amount of classroom instruction and services for students, then assume responsibility for paying for it all.
In that law, basic education had a loose definition of instruction to be conducted in a 180-day school year. It set broad goals of teaching students to "distinguish, interpret and make use of words, numbers and other symbols … organize words and other symbols into acceptable verbal and nonverbal forms of expression … to use various muscles necessary for coordinating physical and mental functions."
It also laid out a means of picking up the tab of special education students and bus transportation from local school districts.
In 1993, lawmakers updated and redefined the law, inserting specific goals of instruction to include reading with comprehension, writing with skill, and communicating effectively and responsibly. It also called for teaching the "core concepts and principles of mathematics; social, physical, and life sciences; civics and history; geography; arts; and health and fitness."
And it still included special education and buses, as well as a payment per student for materials, supplies and other day-to-day operational costs.
State laws passed in 2009 and 2010 revised the definition of basic education again by adding new pieces and expanding existing ones. They also inserted new formulas for how to distribute dollars to the state's 295 school districts.
What resulted from enactment of House Bill 2261 in 2009 and House Bill 2776 in 2010 set the stage for the court fight on funding and this year's legislative debate on where to invest a billion new dollars.
The situation today
Today, basic education covers several different programs with a combined cost of $12.7 billion dollars in the current two-year budget, which ends June 30.
These include special education, bilingual education, the Learning Assistance Program that assists underachieving students in all grades, instruction for students in juvenile detention centers and state institutions, and the highly capable program, which aids those performing at the top academic levels.
Basic education still covers the separate and growing expenses of bus transportation and of materials, supplies and operational costs. The state pays a different amount of money to each school district for buses and supplies. Those sums are based on the number of students and a complicated formula written into the recent laws. Today, the state does not cover the whole bill, which forces districts to divert local levy dollars from classroom instruction to make up the difference.
Those laws in 2009 and 2010 also required the state to do a lot more in certain areas of basic education by the 2017-18 school year.
Among the major changes are:
•Increasing the minimum number of instructional hours for seventh through 12th grades from 1,000 hours to 1,080 hours. It will remain at 1,000 hours for first through sixth grades.
Increasing the minimum number of credits for high school graduation from 20 to 24.
Boosting support of career and technical education and skill centers.
Providing full-day kindergarten in schools statewide.
Reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.
Paying the entire bill for student transportation.
Increasing funds for maintenance, supplies and operation.
Increasing salaries for administrative and classified employees in line with a formula written into the 2010 legislation.
Facing the price tag
Lawmakers knew the price tag for these enhancements of basic education would be in the billions of dollars. But until the McCleary family sued and won, state leaders had shown little compunction to face the financial challenge.
This year, they are.
Budgets passed in the House and Senate and the proposal put forth by the governor each earmark at least $1 billion for the state's unpaid portion of basic education.
All three plans designate the majority of new money for buses and supplies because it will free up local levy funds for instruction.
There are significant variations after that.
For example, the Senate puts $240 million into learning assistance programs and nothing into reducing the number of students in kindergarten through third-grade classes. The House, on the other hand, puts $225 million into class-size reduction and $22.8 million into remediation programs. Inslee's approach is similar -- $128 million for smaller classes and $28 million for LAP.
Inslee and leaders of the two chambers will work to settle this and other differences before the scheduled end of the session April 28.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » Education & SchoolsGovernorLegislature

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