Ramping up for McCleary

Sixty years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote without irony that “Washington has made education her proudest boast.” The boast grew less resonant over the years, until the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision put teeth back in the state constitution’s paramount-duty mandate. Find a way to pony up for K-12, dear lawmakers, or you’ll be held in contempt (and not just by the Supreme Court.)

Big challenges spur creative solutions. One that merits serious consideration is a bipartisan school construction plan shepherded by House Capital Budget Committee Chairman Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, and Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union. The premise is undeniable: More services, more mandated capacity, equals more classrooms.

According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, full-day kindergarten requires $105 million in capital expenses along with $599 million for K-3 reduced-class sizes by 2017-18. The need is well-defined: The Snohomish School District requires 43 additional classrooms. Mukilteo, 91.

“This calls the question on those who say they want to reduce class size sometime in the future,” Dunshee said. “We logically need classrooms in place first.”

The mechanism is $700 million in bonds backed by lottery revenue, borrowing against future lottery earnings to the tune of $50 million a year. The lottery revenue would cover debt services by 2016, and passage would require a simple majority vote of the Legislature. School districts are not forced to match, with the first priority addressing “unhoused” K-3 students based on a 90-sq. ft. space per student required by McCleary.

Utilizing lottery-backed bonds to underwrite school construction has worked well in states such as Oregon and Florida. But bonding still generates blowback, usually from the state treasurer with an eye on issuing debt. Treasurer Jim McIntire published his fourth debt affordability study in January, with a focus on fuel-tax bonds and preserving the state’s credit rating. His analysis will inform how lawmakers approach H.B. 2797.

House Republican support already is coalescing. The onus now is on Senate Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom to give it a push or provide a practical alternative.

H.B. 2797 reflects bipartisan, problem-solving lawmaking. If there’s a better solution (wishing it away doesn’t count) we’d like to see it.

“We can’t cut class size without building classrooms,” Dunshee said. “The kids deserve better than tents.”

Let’s agree to no tents. And let’s also agree to a plan.

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