Lawmakers' wish: cash for schools

Court decision that state must amply fund basic ed presents a big challenge

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SEATTLE -- Lawmakers are making their holiday school funding wish list and it's a short one: Please send cash.

They need the money to give every child free all-day kindergarten, to pay for bus service for about 1 million school children and to take the pressure off local tax levies that help pay for basic education.

A down payment on all of that will cost at least a billion dollars in the next biennium to answer the Supreme Court's orders to pay for the Legislature's own education reform plans by 2018.

The court's January decision in the so-called McCleary case -- that the state is not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic public education -- will shape nearly every action of the Legislature this year and for years to come.

The school funding lawsuit brought by a coalition of school districts, education and community groups as well as parents sought to force the government to fulfill its obligations to the state's schools.

In the past decade, education spending has gone from close to 50 percent to just above 40 percent of the state budget, despite the fact that some education spending is protected by the constitution.

With the court decision hanging over them, lawmakers will face an even greater conundrum when they convene in January on how to pay for all those things while trying to fill yet another year of budget deficits.

Lawmakers have in recent years been dealing with large budget deficits, and earlier this year they cut $300 million in state funding.

They'll face another deficit of at least $900 million in January, and the state economic forecasters say yearly deficits should be expected to hang around for the foreseeable future.

A committee of lawmakers has been meeting since summer to discuss their options for responding to the ruling. The Joint Task Force on Education Funding basically has two choices: cut state spending or raise taxes or fees.

A long list of possible cuts includes some options that are controversial. Those include cuts to the state higher education system, supervision of all parolees, or preschool or health insurance for poor children.

"Most of this stuff is not going to happen. It just doesn't make sense," says Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

He has a few ideas -- such as eliminating three-strikes sentencing and releasing enough inmates to close a prison -- but none would bring enough money into the state treasury this year to make a dent in the total estimate of at least $4 billion to pay for the reforms required in the McCleary decision.