Senate panel passes alternative plan for education funding

  • By Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press
  • Thursday, January 28, 2016 2:31pm
  • Local NewsNorthwest

SEATTLE — The Senate Education Committee on Thursday passed an alternative plan for fixing the way Washington state pays for public schools that few lawmakers on the committee seemed happy about.

The bill contrasts with a similar measure passed in the House on Monday, by setting a different deadline for finishing the work ordered by the state Supreme Court in 2012 in its so-called McCleary decision, in which the justices said school funding was not adequate or uniform.

The competing measures both came out of a bi-partisan task force set up by the governor to tackle the last part of the McCleary decision, moving away from using local school levies to pay for basic education.

The measure passed by the House would order the 2017 Legislature to finish that work. The measure passed 5-4 on Thursday by the Senate Education Committee would give lawmakers until sometime in 2018 to finish the work.

The Senate bill has been sent on to the Senate Ways and Means Committee for further discussion.

The bills are also different in another way: It sets a higher bar for recommendations from the task force that will be set up as a result of the proposal. Both the House and Senate measures have removed another part of the original proposal on money for more classrooms.

Committee Chairman Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said this action was just the next step in a very complicated process and he expected the Senate would continue to work with the House to find a compromise.

But Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the changes approved by the Senate Education Committee were not bipartisan and did not acknowledge the work of the governor’s task force.

“The underlying bill was a carefully crafted piece of legislation that kept everybody at the table,” said Rolfes, who served on that task force. “This amendment significantly weakens it.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said that he was frustrated with the Senate panel’s actions, noting that lawmakers have worked for months to find a bipartisan compromise.

“I think it’s breaking a promise,” he said.

Sullivan noted that Democrats didn’t get everything they wanted in the compromise bill, but stuck to the agreement in the measure that passed out of the House. Now, he said Republicans in the Senate “only want to address the issues that they’re concerned about.”

“Is it fair for us to revisit and bring up our issues again?” he asked. “It’s hugely frustrating that they would take a huge step backward.”

Both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Education Committee said they were unhappy with the underlying bill, because it just talked about finishing the McCleary work and did not actually finish it. The amended version they passed on Thursday took the same approach.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, who also served on the governor’s task force, said he wishes the Legislature was ready to move faster.

“I wish we were doing more and wish it was stronger and wish we were solving the problem for our students,” Dammeier said, adding that he still believes the current measure will help lawmakers get to that goal.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said her fellow lawmakers should not have expected the bill that came out of the governor’s task force would be the final word on the matter.

“As with any major policy decision that we make, we will continue to work on this,” Rivers said. “One way or another we are going to get this done.”

Both measures would set up another task force to find a solution to the state’s overreliance on local school levies to pay for basic education. They also would ask school districts for more details about the way they spend their local tax money to help lawmakers determine how much of it is paying for things like teacher salaries that the state should be covering.

The levy issue is the last hurdle to bringing lawmakers into compliance with the Washington high court’s so-called McCleary decision. It’s also what lawmakers call the most challenging part of the work.

The Legislature has addressed other issues cited by the court, including putting more than $2 billion into student transportation, all-day kindergarten, smaller classes and classroom supplies.

The Supreme Court has been holding the state in contempt because the Legislature has not made a plan for finishing the McCleary work, which must be done by 2018. The court has been sanctioning lawmakers $100,000 a day since August, with the money to go into a special account for education.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee expressed optimism that lawmakers would “fulfill their duty,” but said Thursday that the state needs to make sure it has a plan to have the funding available for schools by the 2017-18 school year.

“That is the date, the IOU if you will, to our children,” he said. “To accomplish that, that needs to be done in the 2017 session.”

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