State lawmakers are about $1B apart on education reform

They disagree on what to pay for first, where to get money

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SEATTLE — About a billion dollars separates Senate Republicans from House Democrats on how they believe the Legislature should respond to last year's Supreme Court ruling on money for Washington schools.

But lawmakers from both parties say the differences are not so far that they won't be able to work out a compromise before the Legislature goes home this spring.

"We will walk out of here with an agreement," said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who is the chair of the Senate Education Committee. "Probably nobody is going to be happy with it. But we will definitely have an agreement."

Lawmakers from both parties are already working behind the scenes to craft a compromise. Litzow said the hard part is not figuring out how to pay for the reforms mentioned in Supreme Court's decision on a school funding lawsuit known as the McCleary case.

"The harder part is probably finding out how to fund non-education stuff," said Litzow, R-Mercer Island.

Lawmakers don't agree — even within their own parties — about what to pay for first, where to get the money and how much of a down payment toward an estimated $4.5 billion the state will likely add to K-12 education dollars by 2018.

Rep. Ross Hunter, who as chair of the Ways and Means Committee is the House's top budget writers, believes Republicans and Democrats are further apart on these issue than Litzow thinks.

Hunter, D-Medina, estimates this year's down payment on the McCleary decision will total $1.7 billion.

Litzow says they're looking for between $500,000 and $1.5 billion. Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, estimates lawmakers need to add about $1 billion this year toward a $3 billion total by 2018.

The Washington State Budget & Policy Center agrees with the $4.5 billion estimate, but says the full bill will cost close to $8 billion when all employee expense are transferred back from local to state dollars.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled the state isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic education. 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.

State lawmakers have in recent years been dealing with large budget deficits, and last year cut $300 million in state funding. The Supreme Court has given the Legislature until 2018 to fix the problem, but wants to see progress every year until then.

Hunter said the disagreements aren't just about money.

"I don't think we fundamentally agree on the responsibility," he said.

He said some of the billion-dollar difference between the Senate Republicans and House Democrats comes from Republican lawmakers who want to avoid the part of the court ruling that deals with local levy money paying for things that are a state responsibility, such as administrator salaries.

Hunter and the lawyers representing the coalition of school districts, parents, educators and community groups that brought the McCleary lawsuit interpret the Supreme Court ruling to mean the state needs to stop depending on local dollars to make up for basic education expenses.