State education budgets use money shifts

The Seattle TimesApril 19, 2013 

A group of West Seattle High School students spent a recent afternoon practicing how to prepare hospital beds, changing sheets and replacing pillow cases in an unusual classroom made to look like a clinic.

The medical-careers class is meant to train students in nursing and get them ready for a certification exam that could allow them to pursue jobs in the medical field.

It’s all part of Seattle’s career and technical education program, a special category of high-school courses that is gaining popularity statewide but is facing a deep cut under a budget plan put forth in Olympia earlier this month.

Wait, what?

You might have heard that lawmakers are proposing to dramatically increase funding for public schools in response to a state Supreme Court order.

You might not have heard that some of them plan to do it in part by cutting programs and shifting money from other parts of the schools budget.

Budget maneuvering exists in each of the spending proposals, from Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, the Republican-led coalition that controls the Senate and the Democrat-controlled House. But the Senate, in particular, uses shifts and cuts that make its K-12 education investment appear bigger than it is.

The Senate’s two-year budget was advertised as a $1 billion funding increase for schools. But if you add up all of the additional spending and subtract all of the cuts and shifts — including the $72 million hit to career and technical education — the plan comes out to $795 million above what schools would be spending anyway.

And if you consider the Senate — like Inslee and the House — wants to continue to suspend cost-of-living pay raises for teachers, the infusion above the bottom line would be just $499 million.

“It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Frank Ordway, a lobbyist for the League of Education Voters. “Part of it is just transfers that are called investments.”

The state now spends about $13.6 billion of its roughly $31 billion current two-year budget on K-12 public schools.

State officials estimate the education budget would grow to $14.6 billion in the 2013-15 budget without any policy changes, because of enrollment growth, inflation and other factors.

The court ruling, issued last January, ordered the state to spend more on top of that to fulfill its constitutional duty to “make ample provision for the education of all.”

The ruling is expected to trigger increases of $3.5 billion to $4.5 billion, by 2018, above what is needed to maintain programs.

Lawmakers this year made starting to tackle that obligation a top priority.

Inslee said his two-year budget plan would grow education spending by $1.2 billion above the maintenance level. The House claimed a $1.3 billion increase, and the Senate put its additional spending at $1 billion.

For all three budgets, nearly $300 million of the increase is covered by continuing the suspension of an initiative that would require automatic cost-of-living teacher raises.

Initiative 732 was approved in 2000 but has been suspended for the past four years, so some legislators don’t see continuing the suspension as a cut.

“Nobody expected 732 to be restored,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Steve Litzow.

In addition to the career and technical education cuts, the Senate would shift $37 million in grants to school districts to address the achievement gap into a different category called the Learning Assistance Program, which has the same goal but is more directly controlled by the state.

That would add accountability, Senate leaders say. But it also allows the Senate to claim the $37 million as new money for schools.

The Senate budget also would cut $87 million from schools spending by moving some part-time school employees from state-provided insurance to coverage subsidized under the new federal health care law.

Litzow, a Mercer Island Republican, said his caucus focused on putting dollars into programs that would result in the best outcomes for students.

“We can sit here and play with the numbers, but if you look at how much money we’re spending right now and how much money we’ll be spending next year, it’s a significant investment — even on a per-student basis,” he said.

House Democratic budget writer Ross Hunter called the Senate shifts “misleading.”

But Hunter’s budget would make some education reductions, as well.

In addition to suspending I-732, the House and Inslee proposals would move $30 million out of the state’s Alternative Learning Experience program, which lets students earn credits in specialized classes outside of the normal school setting.

And all three budget plans claim more than $50 million in savings through technical shifts and by reducing the number of state tests.

All three would dedicate much of the new money to basic operating costs, such as textbooks, supplies, building utilities and school buses.

The House and Inslee budgets also would reduce class sizes in early grades in high-poverty schools. The Senate would save that move for future years.

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