As they try to fill a $5.3 billion shortfall, state legislators made it clear Tuesday that they'll be taking on some controversial education issues in the budget negotiations ahead.
In a bipartisan budget proposal it released Tuesday night and in last-minute floor action, the Washington Senate moved forward on three divisive proposals – cutting teacher salaries, reducing national board bonuses and laying teachers off based on performance, not seniority.
Those three ideas divided majority Democrats and drew both praise and dismay from education advocacy groups, school administrators and the governor, bringing up sharp divisions among policymakers about where to cut the education budget.
One big concern for teachers was a provision in the Senate budget that would reduce K-12 teacher salaries by 3 percent, a move that would save the state about $251 million over two years.
But the Legislature can’t dictate teacher salaries. So state government would simply reduce payments to school districts, which would have to figure out how to cut wages at the local level.
Local school administrators said negotiating with unions for a pay cut would be no easy task.
“It exposes the district to incredible local stress to try to translate that,” Tacoma Schools Superintendent Art Jarvis said.
If legislators want to deal with salaries, he said, “I would hope that they would do it with a state-controlled mechanism and not hand it off to local districts to find a solution.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire said she would push to preserve teacher pay during upcoming budget negotiations because she worried that school districts wouldn’t be able to negotiate lower pay, and the reduced funding would end up being another cut to overall money for K-12 education.
But Senate supporters of the idea pointed out that Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe introduced a bill to facilitate the cuts by letting school districts give teachers unpaid furloughs. Her proposal, Senate Bill 5829, would let districts cut up to five school days per year.
McAuliffe, a Bothell Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 education committee, said the 3 percent cut would be a temporary measure that mirrored salary reductions for other government employees. If the state had the money, though, she said she would like to see teacher wages go up.
“They’re cuts we don’t want to make, but quite frankly there are no good cuts in education,” McAuliffe said.
If the Legislature doesn’t pass McAuliffe’s furlough bill, however, Tom Cruver, president of the Bethel Education Association, said pay reductions could mean teachers would have to work a few days per year for free. He said a 3 percent cut in pay amounts to just shy of six days’ pay for teachers in his Pierce County district.
Educational advocacy groups condemned the pay cut for teachers, saying it would undermine the state’s ability to attract good teachers and also discourage talented young people from entering the profession.
“You don’t keep high-quality teachers in the classroom by cutting pay and bonuses,” said Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood, referring to the proposed salary reductions and a separate provision in the Senate budget that would reduce bonuses for National Board Certified teachers.
Ordinarily, teachers who get the certification, which can take up to three years, get a $5,000 bonus once a year for 10 years, but the Senate proposal would cut those 10 years down to three. It cuts more from the program than the House budget, but less than the governor, who suspended the bonuses altogether in her budget proposal.
According to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, there are about 5,200 National Board Certified Teachers in Washington.
Another controversial measure the Senate put forward Tuesday was a bill that would lay off teachers based on performance instead of seniority. The proposal, which Sen. Rodney Tom attached to House Bill 1443 during floor debate, revives the performance-based layoff idea from similar bills that never made it out of committee in the House or Senate.
On the floor, it sparked a heated debate about how best to improve education quality in Washington, with Tom and others who supported the measure arguing that it doesn’t make sense to keep teachers with an unsatisfactory rating.
“The opponents of the bill can’t argue that we should lay off a third-year superstar teacher in place of a teacher on probation,” Tom, a Medina Democrat, said.
Other senators said, though, that the discussion in the Legislature should be about how to retain teachers, not how to lay them off.
“If you want good schools, you have to step up to the funding challenge,” Senate Majority Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said. She said it was a sad statement that the biggest education bill the Senate passed so far was about how best to lay off teachers.
George Scarola, legislative director for the League of Education Voters, said he agreed with Brown in principle, but while layoffs are happening, using performance measures was a better approach than seniority.
“We’re all in favor of turning this discussion into one about funding for education, but that doesn’t solve the problem that there will be layoffs this year,” he said.
Others, including McAuliffe and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Seattle Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said the idea was premature. They pointed out that the state is still working on a new teacher evaluation system that is scheduled to roll out statewide in 2013.
Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report