By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — Washington’s public schools are in line for a much-needed infusion of money from the state, but it may not be enough to get the Supreme Court to ease off lawmakers to do more.
Today, Gov. Jay Inslee will sign a two-year budget containing an additional $1 billion for basic education programs serving roughly 1 million students.
Though Republican and Democratic lawmakers are patting themselves on the back for the accomplishment, it’s only a slice of what needs to be put into schools to comply with a court mandate to fully fund basic education by 2018.
Justices in last year’s McCleary case required lawmakers to submit periodic progress reports to the court. The next one, in the form of a legal brief, is due in two months after which the attorney who represented the families who sued will file a response.
Then the court is expected to issue its analysis this fall.
“I have not read whatever the final budget document is, but if one defines ‘progress’ as ‘not going entirely backwards,’ then the Legislature seems to be making some ‘progress,’” attorney Thomas Ahearne wrote in an email Friday. He represented the McCleary and Venema families who sued the state over school funding.
“From what I read in the press and hear about what has (and has not) been included in budget proposals in this final stretch, however, it does not appear that the state’s ‘progress’ will be in line with the Supreme Court’s McCleary dictates,” he wrote.
Many lawmakers in both parties are confident the court will be satisfied to see they are pumping $1 billion over the next two years into most of the various components of basic education.
Justices also will want to see if lawmakers came up with a “regular and dependable” source of dollars to cover similar-sized investments in future budgets. And they may look closely at the reforms aimed at improving the academic achievement of the state’s lowest performing students.
“I have no intention of sugar coating what we did and did not do,” said state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, a member of the bipartisan panel entrusted with writing the legislators’ report.
“We’re moving in the right direction. We didn’t make any historic changes. We made piecemeal improvements,” Frockt said. “Overall, on funding I would give us a C. On regular and dependable funding I would give us a D.”
Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, chairman of the Senate education committee, gave the Legislature a grade of B+ for its effort.
“We have a regular and dependable source. It’s called the general fund,” he said. “Unless the economy tanks, we have and will continue to have $33 billion and we must make it a priority to put money into education.
“For the last 10 years we haven’t chosen to prioritize (education),” he said. “It’s now locked in. We believe we’ve turned the tide toward making education a priority.”
Litzow said the court should take notice of the money put into programs targeting minority students of low-income families who perform worse than their peers.
Reform is the one area they came up short and will be the focus of the Majority Coalition Caucus in 2014.
“On the reform piece, we were not able to get everything through the House so we will have to come back and address that,” he said.
Defining the problem
Currently, basic education covers several different programs with a combined cost of nearly $13 billion dollars in the budget, which ends today.
These include special education, bilingual education, the Learning Assistance Program, which assists underachieving students in all grades, instruction for students in juvenile detention centers and state institutions, and the highly capable program that aids those performing at top academic levels.
Basic education also covers the separate and growing expenses of bus transportation and of materials, supplies and operational costs.
Lawmakers can define and redefine basic education as they want. Most recently they did that with bills passed in 2009 and 2010. In its McCleary decision, the court told the Legislature it needed to pay for what it had promised.
The tab could ultimately reach $5 billion more per budget because those laws expanded the definition of basic education and required expensive enhancements to long-standing components.
For example, those laws call for adding hours of instruction for secondary students and providing full-day kindergarten in every school.
In the new budget, $90 million will be spent to double the percentage of enrollment in all-day kindergarten from the current 22 percent of students to 43.75 percent.
And there’s $97 million for adding two hours a week of additional instruction for the seventh through the 12th grades starting the fall of 2014. This will increase the number of instructional hours per school year from 1,000 to 1,080.
Over the next two years, the state will put in an additional $374 million for materials and supplies and $131.6 million for student transportation. Every one of those dollars will free up a dollar now spent by the school districts. By July 2015, the state intends to be paying the full cost of busing students to and from schools.
There’s also $143 million for the Learning Assistance Program, which is a catch-all for various classroom efforts to boost achievement of students in all subject areas. And $103.6 million will be used to reduce the size of kindergarten and first-grade classes in schools with large percentages of students of poor families.
A silver lining and a dark cloud
Nick Brossoit, superintendent of the Edmonds School District, said the additional resources are welcomed. But he wrote in an email Friday that even with the down payment the state “is still far away from the levels of K-12 funding it promised and 1 million public school students deserve.”
Brossoit is also president of the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, a coalition of school districts and education organizations that was a plaintiff in the McCleary case. He said he needed to read the budget fine print before projecting how the court might respond.
“As to the long-term sustainability of the state revenue strategies or if they will be ‘regular and dependable’ as ordered, we will need some time to review,” he wrote.
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, who was supplanted by Litzow as the education committee leader this year, said a sticking point could be how serious the court considers the need to spell out “regular and dependable” funding.
There’s nothing guaranteeing the state can put in another billion dollars in the 2015-17 budget. And while the budget does divert a chunk of real estate excise taxes and public utility taxes directly into school funding, that diversion ends in 2019.
“If I were the court I would say you didn’t live up to your commitments,” she said, adding that down the road “the only way we get to full funding is with new revenue.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org