By Sen. Nick Harper
The Legislature has returned to Olympia, and the state budget will dominate the debate, just as it has in every session since the start of the Great Recession. Unlike any other session, however, this year we have been warned by the state Supreme Court that we need to invest more funds, not less, in our children’s education.
As we write a new two-year budget, we should remember that most Washington families could use some help. Reinvestment in the middle class is long overdue. We have an obligation to provide them with relief and to support those women and men who are working to get into the middle class. The Supreme Court’s directive and the need to grow and strengthen middle-class families are not disconnected.
In short – we should put money back into the pockets of our middle class families through strategic investment in education.
Over the past four years, we’ve navigated our way through $20 billion in funding challenges brought on by the Great Recession, resulting in cuts to every state service including health care, corrections and education. Last year, however, with the economy healing, we were able to stop the cuts to K-12 and college funding.
That was achieved in spite of a conservative coalition that took over the budget-writing process in the Senate. Three conservative Democrats teamed with every Republican to write their own version of the state budget. Their talk was about the need for reform and the importance of bipartisanship, but the budget they wrote spoke for itself.
It cut $74 million in education funding from drop-out prevention programs to college aid and eliminated food and housing assistance to those people in Washington state who need it most. Today, the same crowd has formed a majority caucus in the Senate, their talking points are the same, and I expect their approach to budgeting will be the same.
But the Supreme Court has been very clear, ruling in its McCleary decision that the state is failing to meet its paramount duty of fully funding K-12 education. Estimates project we’re falling about a billion dollars shy of living up to our end of the bargain.
Many in the Senate’s new Republican majority believe we can fully fund K-12 by simply cutting everything else. I disagree with this narrow, shortsighted approach. We need to educate our kids, for sure — but not at the expense of programs for seniors, health care for kids, or food assistance for hungry families. Everything in the budget is linked together; cutting one program has a direct impact on another.
Take Hawthorne Elementary School in Everett, for example. The school has thrived despite a high rate of students exposed to adverse childhood conditions at home. These issues include homelessness, mental health issues, domestic violence, poverty, and drug and alcohol abuse – the very problems addressed by the services Republicans suggested we eliminate last year. We can’t go back down that road.
If we want to heal education, I believe we must look beyond the McCleary decision. Education begins at birth and lasts a lifetime. While the state’s role changes throughout that period, it is my strong belief that our paramount responsibility exists from the cradle to career – which means looking beyond K-12 education
With 3,000 children on the waiting list, our state pre-school assistance program can’t come close to meeting the need. And the state is only funding full-day kindergarten for 22 percent of our students. What would it mean to middle-class families if we did more?
We’ve kept our system of higher education together by passing on the costs to families and students through tuition increases. The actual state share of the core costs of instruction at Washington’s four-year colleges has dropped from 60 percent to just 35 percent during the financial crisis – a crisis, by the way, brought about by Wall Street but overwhelming affecting the middle class. What would it mean to middle class families if we reversed course?
As the Senate gets to work on the budget, we have difficult choices to make. Reforms and more cuts will be the simple answers.
We have to work together and take a hard look at eliminating unnecessary tax loopholes, shrinking the gap between well-off school districts and those that have less, and, yes, Heaven-forbid, even perhaps asking those who can afford it to pay a little more. We should increase our capacity for state funded pre-school, fully fund all-day kindergarten, and invest in higher education so that our in-state tuition rates can be reduced.
The state can’t solve every problem that faces every Washingtonian, but it can create an environment that gives everybody a fair shot. That’s a different – and better – goal than simply surviving through another budget.
Sen. Nick Harper, a Democrat, lives with his wife and family in Everett.