3 plans in play for state to fully fund education

OLYMPIA — The bounds of Washington’s education funding battle are coming into sharper focus after months of rhetorical skirmishing and political positioning.

A spirited debate Wednesday in the state Senate preceded passage of a Republican plan radically changing the source and distribution of dollars used to educate 1.1 million students in public schools.

On Monday, the scene shifts to the House where a competing blueprint drawn up by majority Democrats will get its first public airing in the House Appropriations Committee. The House could possibly vote on it next week as well.

With consideration of those two plans, along with the scheme produced by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, the critical pieces of the school funding puzzle are on the table for lawmakers to assemble before the scheduled end of session April 23.

“We now have three directions for how to solve the problem. We’re at a good place for negotiating,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who served on the Education Funding Task Force in 2016. “What’s exciting is everyone is acknowledging we want to solve it this year.”

Lawmakers are working to fully fund public schools in line with the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling known as the McCleary decision. Justices said funding must come from reliable and sustainable sources. And the eventual result must ensure school districts no longer rely on local property tax levies to pay employee salaries and other basic education expenses.

The Republican proposal embedded in Senate Bill 5607, which passed on a 25-24 vote, would replace money collected from local school levies with revenue from a new statewide property tax.

Under the plan, existing local levies are extended at their current rate for 2018 — erasing concerns about the so-called levy cliff — then are eliminated completely in 2019. School districts, with approval of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, could restart local levies with voter approval in 2020.

The rate for the new statewide property tax would be 45 cents per $1,000 in 2018, rising to $1.80 in 2019 when local levies would go away.

The Republican plan also would discard the existing method of allocating state funds based on a prototypical school and instead use a new model based on characteristics of students that would guarantee each district receives a minimum $12,500 per pupil.

“This proposal recognizes that every student in our state has value, that every child has unique needs,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the bill’s sponsor and lead budget writer in the Senate.

Braun blasted the prototypical school funding model as “Soviet-style central planning” and described the dollars-per-pupil approach as more equitable, more transparent and easier for parents to understand how the state pays for their child’s education.

Other elements of the GOP proposal include boosting starting pay for new teachers to $45,000 and providing bonuses of $25,000 to $50,000 to top teachers. There’s also a housing allowance of up to $10,000 for employees working in districts where the assessed value of homes exceeds the statewide average.

In this plan, provisions of the voter-approved class size reduction measure — Initiative 1351 — are cut, teacher strikes are banned and districts could use teachers who are not certificated.

There was much debate Wednesday on whether the Republican proposal will actually lead to greater sums of money getting injected into the school system.

Democrats asserted it will not, and that dozens of districts will receive less money per student in 2018-19 than they would under requirements of current law. They said it will affect 605,000 students overall, something several senators called unfair and indefensible.

“Does this legislation help all of our students in Washington state?” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. “Unfortunately, the answer to that question is no.”

Republicans countered that figures cited by Democratic senators are based on incorrect assumptions and that 99.8 percent of districts will be receiving more money per student than they did in the 2015-16 school year.

Expect the disagreement to flare up again Monday when the Senate bill and House Bill 1843, the House Democrats education funding approach, are considered in a public hearing.

The House bill, which maintains the prototypical school model, is mostly focused on where additional state dollars would be invested in the next two budgets.

It calls for boosting starting pay for new teachers to $45,500 beginning in the 2019-20 school year. Also, it would increase funding so that by that same school year, the average salary for teachers would be $70,824, for certificated administrative staff should be $117, 159 and for classified staff would be $54,084.

Boosting salaries to those levels will require in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion in the next two-year budget but the House bill does not spell out how that cost will be covered. House Democrats have said they’re considering several sources including higher property and business taxes and new taxes on capital gains and carbon emissions.

The House bill calls for expanding the Learning Assistance Program, shrinking the size of career and technical education classes and adding counselors in middle schools and high schools. Those changes would take effect in September 2019.

Regarding school levies, the House bill maintains them at their current levels and sets a maximum 24 percent rate starting in 2021

Smith, the Whidbey Island lawmaker, had reservations about the House plan because, unlike the Senate plan, it does not include a means of paying for itself. She said it is problematic that Democrats are talking about revenue options like a carbon tax that voters have rejected.

“What we can’t do is we we can’t support a plan that doesn’t have funding,” she said. “We have to be voting on a plan that has a funding mechanism.”

Gov. Inslee told Washington Education Association members earlier this week that he appreciated the effort Republicans expended in developing their plan but he didn’t like much of the content.

The manner in which they swap state dollars for local levy dollars is “fundamentally unfair” and will lead to a “massive” property tax increase in large parts of King County and significant tax cuts for the rest of the state, he said Tuesday to a gathering of about 80 leaders of the statewide teachers union.

“We’re going to have to find a better way,” he said.

Monday’s House hearing is slated for 3:30 p.m. TVW will be webcast live on its website, twv.org.

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

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