In Our View: Lawmakers Need Work

Report on school funding probablywon't receive a passing grade



Now that they have turned in their report and are awaiting the instructors’ final grade, legislators can expect to be assigned some remedial courses in the coming months. They probably didn’t fail their last course, but they are likely to be handed an “incomplete” for their efforts.

Washington lawmakers last week handed in their annual self-evaluation regarding progress on funding for K-12 education. And while the state Supreme Court has yet to break out its red correction pen, others were quick to weigh in.

“I think they are doing what they think they can get away with,” said Tom Ahearne, a lawyer for a coalition of school districts, educators, parents, and community groups who won a court ruling several years ago that had wide-ranging implications.

In the wake of the McCleary decision, lawmakers were tasked with adhering to a constitutional requirement to fully fund public education by 2018. The Legislature formed the Quality Education Council in 2009 to determine exactly what that means, and the council developed a plan for an additional $4.5 billion in two phases over the next several years.

This year’s Legislature added nearly $1 billion in K-12 spending for the 2013-15 biennium. The additions included:

• $89.8 million for full-day kindergarten, increasing enrollment in such programs from 22 percent to 44 percent;

• $131.7 million for student transportation, which fully funds the cost of busing students by the 2014-15 school year;

• $374 million for materials, supplies, and operating costs;n And $103.6 million toward reducing class sizes.

“I don’t think it has everything in here that everybody wanted, but it has the core issues that were important to both sides and it lays out in a factual way what we did and what needs to be done,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, co-chair of the committee that produced the report.

The Legislature’s effort represents a nice start, particularly in a time of strapped state budgets. Yet it comes nowhere close to the $3.4 billion suggested by the Quality Education Council for this biennium. In other words, lawmakers scored about 30 percent on this test.

“I think we made amazing progress,” added Rep. Susan Fagan, R-Pullman.

Others aren’t convinced.

Among his rebuttal points, Ahearne noted that the Legislature put more money into transportation, but decreased their ultimate funding goal to make that progress appear more impressive. “If you move the goal line and cross it, that’s not a touchdown,” he said.

As part of the McCleary decision, lawmakers are required to provide a report for the Supreme Court regarding the progress they have made. State Superintendent Randy Dorn, meanwhile, suggested that they missed their target. Rather than throwing a strike, their pitch landed in the dirt about 10 feet in front of the plate.

Which means that lawmakers better limber up their arms. Dorn is pushing them to add at least another $400 million for K-12 education when they approve a supplemental budget during the 2014 session, and even that would leave them well behind the pace required to meet McCleary’s requirements by 2018.

Those requirements aren’t going away. The standards now in place were the result of a long and drawn-out court battle, and they are mandated by the state constitution. Which means there’s a lot of work left to do.