Bill would put limits on teacher pay raises

OLYMPIA — With lawmakers set to pour as much as $1 billion more into public schools, Senate Republicans want to make sure most of it doesn’t wind up in the pockets of teachers in the form of pay raises.

A bill approved by the Senate steers most of those new dollars away from salaries and into training existing teachers and hiring new ones to improve the reading skills and academic performance of students.

One provision bars school districts from granting pay hikes greater than the rate of inflation for the next two years. Teachers could earn more than inflation but, under the bill, any added compensation would have to be for “targeted professional development” and not salary.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said they want teachers paid for improving their knowledge and abilities in ways that will have an impact in the classroom. There is concern, he said, too much will simply go into salaries.

“Everybody expects by putting a billion dollars more into education, you’ll get results,” he said. “We’re going to be watching very carefully.”

Many House Democrats oppose the provision, and that has made Senate Bill 5946 one of the last stumbling blocks in reaching agreement on a new budget in time to avert a partial shutdown of government July 1.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said the bill could not pass “the way it came over from the Senate” but didn’t specify how his majority caucus will respond.

The Senate approved SB 5946 on a 26-22 vote on June 13. As of Friday, the House had not scheduled a vote.

Washington lawmakers are in their second special session in search of a deal on a new budget for the two-year cycle, which begins July 1.

The House, which is controlled by Democrats, and the Senate, which is run by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, are trying to agree on how to erase a nearly billion-dollar shortfall while complying with a Supreme Court order to pump significant new sums of money into public schools.

Both chambers adopted budgets that suspend cost-of-living pay hikes for teachers as required under Initiative 732, a move that saves $300 million. This would be the fourth consecutive year lawmakers have balked at providing the money.

But budgets adopted in each chamber do provide in the neighborhood of $1 billion for other basic education services and programs now paid for by school districts with local levy dollars.

The largest chunks of money in each budget are for bus transportation and materials, supplies and operating costs, known as MSOC. The Senate wants to provide $720 million on those items while the House is at $524 million.

Regardless of the final amount, every state dollar that comes in for those areas will free up a dollar for school districts to spend elsewhere, and Republicans are concerned teacher unions will make a grab for it.

“What we’re trying to figure out is what the locals are going to do with it,” Litzow said. “We want to make sure the money goes in and actually makes a difference.”

The leader of the state’s largest union of public school teachers said the bill is a case of micro-managing by leaders of the Majority Coalition Caucus.

Mary Lindquist, president of the 82,000-member Washington Education Association, said teachers, administrators, parents and school board members will decide where the freed-up local dollars can be best spent.

Teachers will likely want money spent in several areas, including salaries, smaller class sizes, and implementing a new evaluation program.

“These are local decisions that every district in every community will have to make,” she said. “(Senate leaders) think they have a better idea of what the Everett School District and Marysville School District should be doing with the funds they have. I fundamentally think they’re wrong.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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