Editorials in the Olympian, Seattle Times Urge Swift Legislative Action on School Funding

The dominant fiscal challenge for the 2017 Legislature is, of course, meeting the McCleary mandate for full funding of basic education. That’s a given, known by anyone with a cursory interest in education, politics, or the state budget. 

The Seattle Times recently editorialized that lawmakers have finally run out of time.

A consultant’s report presented to the Education Funding Task Force Tuesday confirmed an estimate that has been floating around Olympia for years. It will take another $3.5 billion a biennium or more to complete the work required by the 2012 Washington State Supreme Court decision on education finance known as the McCleary decision. The foundation for the work is two reform bills enacted in 2009 and 2010. The high court is holding the state’s feet to the fire to follow through.

Now that the report is complete, lawmakers have no more excuses to delay this crucial work to improve the state’s education system and bring equity to the education of students in rich districts and poor ones.

The editorial also points out that more than money is at play.

Going hand-in-hand with the finance reform must be vigilance to ensure the investments engender progress in student achievement.

Although lawmakers continue to disagree on the dollars required or where they’ll come from, the editorial suggests that the consultant’s report puts an end to the dispute over the dollar amount, leaving only the source question unresolved.

The debate over the amount of money needed to finish the job should be over. Now they have to finish the work.

The Legislature still has a math — or political — problem: where the money comes from. But the answer will come from a pretty short list: property taxes, a new capital-gains tax, closing tax exemptions, an income tax, moving state spending from social services or prisons to education.

Editorial writers at the Olympian also weigh in, caustically. 

If the Washington Legislature had a sports team, its mascot could fittingly be named The Wimps.

In January, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House are facing what many have estimated is at least a $1.75 billion-a-year funding challenge for K-12 public schools. That’s a tough problem to solve in the best of circumstances. 

Like the Times, the Olympian editorial board thinks too much time has gone by without a legislative resolution to the funding challenge. While the editorial acknowledges disagreement on the number and the difficulty associated with achieving legislative consensus, it concludes,

If there is a silver lining, it is this: The Washington economy continues to grow. Jobs are being created. Revenue from sales, business and real estate taxes are expected to produce $2.1 billion in reserves for the next biennium that begins July 1, 2017. 

But the state also faces a structural budget deficit — if real costs are counted. These are costs for solving McCleary, providing competitive pay for state employees, and improving the functioning of state prisons, psychiatric hospitals and other programs.

The Association of Washington Business also reports on the consultant’s study.

The report says that local school districts spend an average of $14,651 per full-time employee on top of what the state pays to hire teachers and other school employees, And, compared to other states, Washington teacher pay is actually on par, according to the report. However, money from local levies is being spent on items districts categorize as compensation for professional development, activity outside the school day, work on weekends and over the summer, and work that is “deemed done” as part of a teacher’s regular daily responsibilities.

The consultants don’t recommend which of those categories should be paid for by the state, or by local districts as supplmental additions. It’s up to the Legislature to decide which of those categories qualify as basic education, and thus must be funded by the state rather than local districts. 

And that decision will not come swiftly or easily.