Legislators offer dueling proposals to resolve school funding issue

OLYMPIA — A bipartisan panel of state lawmakers demonstrated Wednesday the difficulty of forging agreement on fully funding Washington’s public school system in the upcoming legislative session.

The Education Funding Task Force gathered for the next-to-last time before the session kicks off Monday to discuss proposals crafted by the Democratic and Republican members.

The four Democratic members came with four pages of policies, some old and some new, and a price tag of $7.3 billion for the next four years. Their proposal embraced higher starting pay for new teachers, an average salary of $71,000 for all teachers, modest change in local levy rules and a willingness to consider new or higher taxes to cover the cost.

The quartet of Republican members arrived with a set of guiding principles they intend to use to build consensus, initially among the GOP in the House and Senate, and then across the aisle in each chamber. Education should be funded first, they said, and existing revenues should be used to pay the tab before launching into a conversation on any new sources of funding.

There were common concepts — such as paying new teachers a higher salary — but Republicans did not pencil in a specific amount. Nor did they offer any new state-funded salary scale for teachers and administrators.

The lack of such numeric detail frustrated the panel’s Democrats, who said they expected more at this stage.

“We’ve had seven months as a task force to put together specific recommendations. People in my community expected more than guiding principles,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “It’s just not enough. What we were led to believe is you’d have a plan.”

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the Senate’s lead budget writer, responded sharply.

“Please refrain from scolding us for our approach. Our approach is legitimate,” he said. “We say let’s take a slower approach. Let’s build consensus.”

Afterwards Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who serves on the task force, defended the presentation and said there’s more detailed work under way.

“We are going to be successful at finding a solution that is a hybrid of the multiple proposals that will be presented,” she said. “Principles create parameters in which a budget decision can be made that is sustainable and achieves our constitutional mandate to amply fund our system.”

Under the 2012 decision in the McCleary case, the state Supreme Court found the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund education and school districts were forced to use local property tax levies to make up the difference.

The court has given the state until Sept. 1, 2018, to fix the problem. It also ordered the Legislature to deliver justices a plan for how they intend to do that. Lawmakers’ failure to do so resulted in the court finding them in contempt and levying a $100,000-a-day fine.

A 2016 bill established the Education Funding Task Force with two members of each caucus in each chamber.

Gov. Jay Inslee, whose own school funding plan relies on roughly $4.4 billion in new taxes in the next budget, applauded Democrats for putting forth a proposal. He expressed optimism Republican members of the task force would offer up additional details at the Monday meeting.

“We have many weeks of discussion and negotiation ahead of us,” he said in a statement. “None of the plans being proposed is likely to be the one we pass, yet having serious, substantive proposals to spark that discussion is crucial.”

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

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