In Our View: Building an Alternative

Senate cool to House's Lottery-school construction plan; what is its idea?

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While state senators appear unlikely to approve a school-funding plan passed by the House, their task remains clearly defined: Come up with an alternative.

The state House of Representatives passed HB 2797 by a 90-7 vote, approving a plan to boost school construction through the issuance of bonds that borrow against future Lottery earnings. The bill would raise $700 million for the construction of new classrooms throughout the state with the goal of reducing class sizes for kindergarten through third-grade students. If you're going to hire teachers, those teachers will need some place to teach.

It is rare in modern politics to see such a large spending plan receive such widespread bipartisan support (all Clark County members of the House voted in favor). It is equally rare to find a pressing problem addressed in such a direct manner.

"This calls the question on those who say they want to reduce class size sometime in the future," said Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish and chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee. "We logically need classrooms in place first."

That is because the state Supreme Court has mandated, through its 2012 McCleary ruling, that the state must provide adequate funding for K-12 education. According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, that will include $599 million in construction spending by 2017-18 to reduce K-3 class sizes.

"Kids need classrooms," Dunshee said. "We're creating 7,000 jobs from Aberdeen to Walla Walla while building good classrooms for our youngest students, and we did it by working together, across party lines."

The clock is ticking, yet the Senate is showing little urgency. "I don't see it getting much traction in our caucus," state Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, told The Seattle Times. Which returns us to the original premise: Come up with an alternative. Senators might not like the plan from the House, but the McCleary mandate cannot be wished away.

Emboldening the reluctance of the majority coalition in the Senate is a report from state treasurer Jim McIntire, who has warned that the proposal to use Lottery funds could endanger the state's bond rating and drive up borrowing costs. "HB 2797 would likely increase the state's overall cost of funds for other capital and transportation investments because it will be regarded by credit markets as a dramatic step away from Washington's long history of strong financial management and fiscal responsibility by exceeding our debt limit," McIntire wrote in a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee and legislative leaders.

Yet, the problem remains. Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, in Mason County, said: "As a body, we need lower class sizes, we need more instruction. This bill allows for that to happen. We can't say those things need to happen and then provide no means for it to occur."

Lawmakers last year added $1 billion to the 2013-15 state budget for K-12 education, yet the Supreme Court countered by instructing legislators to come up with a serious proposal by the end of April outlining how they will adhere to the mandate. That onerous deadline is looming, and HB 2797 would be a reasonable step toward compliance.

"We can't cut class size without building classrooms," Dunshee said. "The kids deserve better than tents."

Until we hear differently, we'll be left to think that is the alternative the Senate has in mind.