Parties to McCleary lawsuit examine down payment

SEATTLE — The people who sued the state over money for schools are taking a closer look at Washington’ s new budget, but they doubt a $1 billion down payment will be enough to convince the Supreme Court that the Legislature is making good progress toward paying the whole cost of basic education.

“Thanks for the down payment” is the primary message from Nick Brossoit, superintendent of the Edmonds School District, speaking for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, which sued the state.

But he is quick to add, “the state is still far away from the levels of K-12 funding it promised and one million public school students deserve.”

The Washington Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 in the case known as the McCleary decision that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic public education. The court gave the Legislature a 2018 deadline to fully implement and pay for the education reforms it had already passed and to find a stable source of money for education. The justices required yearly progress reports from the Legislature. They rejected last year’s report. The next report is due soon.

The attorney for the coalition that sued the state expects the Legislature will get another poor grade from the court this fall.

“It does not appear that the state’s progress will be in line with the Supreme Court’s McCleary dictates,” Seattle attorney Thomas Ahearne said.

The highest praise he would offer the Legislature was that it did not move backward this year in its efforts to pay the cost of educating children.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn also expressed concern that the Legislature wasn’t making enough progress to meet the requirements of the Supreme Court.

“To get to the $1 billion increase this session, the Legislature picked what I’d call low-hanging fruit,” Dorn said. “For the future, we need to look at bigger ideas.”

Dorn encouraged lawmakers to take a closer look at proposals to transform local property tax levies into a new statewide school fund. Dorn and others, including some state lawmakers, do not believe the state can fully answer the Supreme Court without some kind of “levy swap,” as the idea floated by members of both parties has been called.

Lawmakers from both parties said last week that they think they did a pretty good job on the state budget for the next biennium. Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, who is on the committee that makes the annual report to the Supreme Court, gave lawmakers a C for their efforts on school spending, and a D for finding a regular and dependable source of funding.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, was more generous in his assessment.

“This year, more than any time in recent history, state lawmakers had to come together to make substantive improvements to our K-12 system,” he said, in a statement.

The new operating budget includes $15.2 billion in overall K-12 funding, an 11 percent increase over the previous budget.

The K-12 education budget for the 2013-15 biennium includes the following increases:

• An extra $143 million for the Learning Assistance Program to help struggling kids.

• Another $96.9 million for increasing instruction hours in grades 7 to 12 from 1000 to 1080 hours a year.

• More than $100 million for class size reduction in kindergarten and first grade at low-income schools.

• Another $373.9 million to pay for classroom materials, supplies and operating costs and free up local levy dollars.

• An enhancement of $131.6 million toward the cost of student transportation.

Lawmakers also made some improvements that are not considered part of “basic education.” Those enhancements include $16 million to implement a new teacher and principal evaluation system, and $10.2 million to help persistently low achieving schools.

Preschool — not considered basic education but is considered closely linked to success in K-1 — also got a financial boost. The Legislature added $22.3 million to expand a preschool program for kids from low-income families, and set aside $712,000 to expand the reach of a statewide kindergarten readiness program.

Some of these enhancements were paid for by cutting other education programs and budgets, including decreasing the cost of state testing and suspending teacher cost of living raises again.

Thanks to a series of audits of local school districts, the state government also is trying to recover millions of dollars it was sending to school districts for alternative learning programs. Because of accounting issues, many school districts will lose money from one pocket and get it back in another.

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