Lawmakers struggle to solve the puzzle of public education

OLYMPIA — As eight lawmakers arrived at a conference room early Wednesday for another round of negotiations on public school funding, I welcomed them with a nod from my post in the hallway outside the entrance.

I came to take attendance, my way of reminding them someone is watching. I’ve positioned myself outside the same doors ahead of several of these confabs that began March 6.

Participants say they are making progress yet are tight-lipped on specific gains. They appear to be in absolutely no danger of reaching an agreement before the regular legislative session is scheduled to end April 23.

This means the state’s 147 lawmakers are bound for an extra-but-definitely-not-special session — just as many of them predicted at the outset of this 2017 session.

Why is this happening?

Well, consider the task this way: This group is assembling a jigsaw puzzle with around 1,200,295 pieces, each one representing a different student, educator and school district. No two are cut exactly alike.

In fact, different collections of lawmakers have been trying to put this puzzle together since the state Supreme Court issued its decision in the McCleary case in 2012. That ruling requires the state to amply fund a program of basic education in Washington’s public school system by Sept. 1, 2018.

What’s the hang-up?

They don’t agree on how to define basic education. No one seems totally satisfied with how it is now defined in the law. Plenty of Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate wish to see early education, college prep and vocational training enjoy equivalent treatment as reading, writing, arithmetic and science. They don’t now.

And there’s no agreement on what “amply fund” means. Negotiators figure it’ll cost around an additional $1.8 billion in the next two-year budget and multiply into $4 billion or $5 billion in the budget after that. As to where those dollars come from — a new property tax, a new capital gains tax, a business tax hike, etc. — is a subject of other negotiations.

Deciding what to fund and how much to spend are literally the edges of the puzzle. Then this team of four Democrats and four Republicans must begin the assembling that results so every student receives the same program of basic education.

Negotiators also must make sure the state is paying every classroom teacher, school principal and custodian a competitive wage. This actually consumes most of the new spending because the difference between what the state provides districts for those wages and what districts actually pay those workers is significant. It can range from a few thousand dollars for a new teacher to maybe $30,000 a year for a veteran instructor, and double that for top-flight administrators and superintendents.

That brings up the next hurdle: how the dollars will be distributed.

Majority Democrats in the House want to keep using the existing prototypical school model. The Republican-led Senate wants to use a new one that is based on a spending level per pupil. Democrats argue their method is fairer. Republicans counter that theirs is clearer.

Then there are the local property tax levies. School districts will still need money from local levies to pay for athletics, band and other extras that are not part of basic education and thus not covered by the state. What amount they will be allowed to raise is a question this group is debating.

Finally, there’s no lack of politics influencing this effort.

For House Democrats, one challenge is internal. Several caucus members seem to consider it a higher priority to increase funding for human services and health care programs than for education. These guys want a whole lot more revenue from new taxes than can be achieved this year.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are working through a small family problem. It seems some of their GOP brethren in the House are expressing ideas not in sync with elements of the Republican approach.

On Wednesday morning, the eight House and Senate members tried to fit a few more pieces together.

And they all arrived on time.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Mel Jennings sits in his structure during a point-in-time count of people facing homelessness in Everett, Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Mel has had a brain and spinal surgery, and currently has been homeless for a year. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Annual homeless count aims to give snapshot of housing crisis

Volunteers set out into the rain Tuesday to count all the people facing homelessness in central Everett.

Catherine Berwicks loads ballots into a tray after scanning them at the Snohomish County Elections Ballot Processing Center on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 in Everett, Wa.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Lawmakers push to boost voting in county jails across the state

A House bill envisions an approach similar to what’s been happening in the Snohomish County Jail for several years.

Vandalism at Seaview Park on Jan. 21, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Edmonds Police Department)
Police seek suspects in repeated vandalism at Edmonds parks

Vandals have done over $10,000 of damage to parks across the city, including suspected arson and graffiti with hate speech.

One worker looks up from the cargo area as another works in what will be the passenger compartment on one of the first Boeing 787 jets as it stands near completion at the front of the assembly line, Monday, May 19, 2008, in Everett, Wash. The plane, the first new Boeing jet in 14 years, is targeted for power on in June followed by an anticipated first flight sometime late in 2008.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Boeing workers long-exposed to carcinogen far above legal limits

The company confirmed in depositions that parts of its Everett plant still don’t meet 2010 standards.

CarlaRae Arneson, of Lynnwood, grabs a tea press full of fresh tea from Peanut the server robot while dining with her 12-year-old son Levi at Sushi Hana on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Lynnwood, Washington. CarlaRae said she and her son used to visit the previous restaurant at Sushi Hana’s location and were excited to try the new business’s food. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Peanut the robot waitress is on a roll at Lynnwood’s Sushi Hana

She’s less RoboCop and more Rosey as she patrols the restaurant, making sure everyone has a drink and good time.

Traffic moves along Highway 526 in front of Boeing’s Everett Production Facility on Nov. 28, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / Sound Publishing)
Boeing settles with Everett security guard claiming chemical exposure

Holly Hawthorne was assigned to Building 45-335 at the south end of Paine Field, while employees used aerosolized chemical sprays nearby.

A section of contaminated Wicks tidelands on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Port acquisition marks next step in toxic cleanup on Everett waterfront

Private owners donated land near the contaminated Wicks Tide Flats to the Port of Everett. Cleanup work could begin within the year.

FILE - In this photo taken Oct. 2, 2018, semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop in Lynnwood, Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee is joining state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to propose limits to magazine capacity and a ban on the sale of assault weapons. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Democrats advance assault weapons ban, new rules for gun buyers

The measures passed a House committee without Republican support. They are part of a broader agenda to curb gun violence.

Herald publisher Rudi Alcott
A note from the publisher

The Daily Herald publisher Rudi Alcott discusses our new publishing schedule and newspaper delivery by mail.

Most Read