SEATTLE — Ideas, not progress, will be the focus of the Washington Legislature’s annual report to the state Supreme Court on its efforts toward fulfilling the remediation requirements of the court’s decision that found the way the state pays for public schools to be unconstitutional.
Lawmakers discussed many ideas for improving the way the state pays for public schools during the 2014 Legislature, but few made it to the governor’s desk.
The report approved unanimously by a legislative committee on Tuesday will focus on those ideas and how lawmakers will turn them into reality starting next year.
The Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision said lawmakers are not meeting their responsibility to fully pay for basic education and they are relying too much on local tax-levy dollars to balance the education budget.
Lawmakers added money to the education budget this year, but not as much as many government watchers have been asking for, including the coalition of school districts, teachers, parents and community groups that sued the state and won the lawsuit known as the McCleary case.
A total of $982 million will be added to state education spending over the next two years, with most of the money going to classroom supplies, student transportation and the Learning Assistance Program for struggling students. The Legislature also made down payments toward all-day kindergarten and smaller classes in the early grades.
As much as $2.5 billion, by legislative estimates, will need to be added to the education budget to meet the obligations lawmakers have already identified for improving basic education and pay for them.
The report emphasizes that new spending initiatives are more likely to happen during a legislative session when lawmakers write a biennial budget, as they will in 2015.
As Senate Democratic leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said in a written statement issued right after the Article IX Committee adjourned, the hardest work on education funding remains.
“The modest investment we made in K-12 education in the 2014 budget was a good start, but it was only a start,” Nelson said.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said it’s going to be a struggle finding at least $2 billion to add during the next two budget cycles. He said there have been a lot of ideas discussed about how to find the money for education, and he’s willing to give all of them another look.
“I don’t have a preference. I just want to see our task completed,” Sullivan said.
Teacher pay is another big issue up for debate soon in the Legislature, with a lot of questions that still need to be answered, Sullivan said. Those questions range from cost-of-living raises to different pay levels according to where teachers are working.
The report also spends some time arguing with the court over technical issues and talks about education reform in general.
In the court’s response to the Legislature’s report filed after the 2013 session, the justices told lawmakers they expected more specific plans in this year’s report. The Legislature acknowledges in the 2014 report it did not enact more specific timelines, but it said the lawmakers continue to work under guidelines passed in previous sessions and will keep discussing education funding over the summer and fall.
“It’s not an easy solution, but we’re getting there. We’re making progress,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “The hard work begins now.”