Accord on funding education

College students will tell you that nothing focuses the mind like an impending deadline. The same apparently can be said for a contempt of court citation.

While there are definite differences among Democrats and Republicans and House and Senate in Olympia regarding overall budgets, transportation and more, any divide over education funding appears as if it can be easily closed. It’s anyone’s guess how much of that accord can be attributed to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate and the threat of penalties and how much just on the desire to do right by the state’s students. But if a deal can be done that satisfies the court and the state’s citizens, then good on the lawmakers.

Areas where the two budgets mostly agree include:

To meet the McCleary mandate, the Senate budget seeks only $100,000 less than the $1.4 billion outlined in the House Democrats’ budget to provide all-day kindergarten, reduce class sizes to 17 students for grades K-3 by the 2017-18 school year and provide classroom supplies.

Both budgets include money for a cost-of-living adjustment for teachers, as outlined by I-732, although the House funds the increases at a higher level.

Beyond the smaller classes for K-3, both House and Senate want to amend I-1351, which mandated lower classroom sizes for all grades. The Senate suggests voters be asked to approve an amendment to the measure to address only K-3 classes. Otherwise, two-thirds of both houses will have to agree to amend the initiative.

One significant gap exists in funding for early childhood education, with the House Democrats seeking $204 million and the Senate Republicans offering $116 million.

Senate Republicans were most generous to the state’s college students and their families. Where House Democrats and the governor had sought a tuition freeze, the Republicans are offering significant cuts over the next two school years. University of Washington and Washington State University students, who are currently paying annual tuition of $10,740 and $10,336, respectively, would pay $9,474 in 2016 and $7,560 in 2017. Tuition at Western Washington University and other regional schools would fall from the current $7,209 to $6,316 in 2016 and $5,400 in 2017. In reducing tuition, the state will have to make up the difference in revenue for each college.

While a reduction in tuition would be welcome news for college students, if the Legislature can’t reduce tuition and provide the full $204 million for early childhood education, lawmakers should make the state’s younger students the priority as that investment offers the highest potential return by preparing young minds for a lifetime of education.

One area not yet addressed by the Legislature is the Supreme Court’s mandate that would lift the burden from local school districts levies to provide a significant portion of teacher salaries.

The overall agreement on education spending is encouraging. Where the bigger disagreement lies is in how to pay for it. The Senate budget seeks no new taxes. The House budget would add $1.47 billion in revenue with a capital gains tax and an increase of the state B&O tax.

We hope that legislators’ agreement on their spending priorities informs a willingness to compromise on the methods to pay for those priorities, and with little further delay.

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