Minority Republicans in the state House on Thursday called for devoting $817 million over the next two years to meet a state Supreme Court mandate to fund public schools.
Taking into account their plan’s bypassing of raises for teachers, it would provide $566 million more than K-12 education would otherwise receive, reversing some of the cuts of recent years. Although Republicans hold little power in the House, their spending plan is notable as the first to emerge from the two-month-old legislative session.
It combines a detailed education budget with broad sketches of how other obligations would be met — notably, without general tax increases and by taking federal money offered by President Barack Obama’s health care law to expand Medicaid insurance.
“The affordable health care act is here. It’s already been passed ,” said GOP budget writer Gary Alexander of Thurston County. “We’re already paying the taxes — our businesses, individuals are paying the taxes into the program. Then from our standpoint, we should do everything we can to maximize benefits to Washington.”
According to projections, Alexander said, the state would gain more than it would lose from Medicaid expansion every year for at least the next 15 years.
Apart from expanding Medicaid, Republicans said they would find money to deal with a more than $1.2 billion budget shortfall and school obligations by cutting lifetime welfare eligibility to four years from five and eliminating the Housing and Essential Needs voucher program for the poor, among other cuts. They would also find about $80 million in new revenue by addressing a court decision dealing with taxes on phone service.
The new money for basic education would go to extending full-day kindergarten to all school districts; slimming down class sizes by roughly four pupils in kindergarten through third grade; and increasing the number of instructional hours in seventh through 12th grades, among other changes. All are tied to the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
Other spending increases the Legislature has promised would have to wait. Notably, there would be no extra money for school buses right away. Full implementation of Republicans’ $3.1 billion plan would come in the 2018 school year.
The plan still leaves out some ideas that have been linked to the court mandate, including increases in pay for administrative and support staff.
Enumclaw Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, House Republicans’ leader on education, said the plan sticks to the core areas the Legislature has promised to fund rather than hanging more funding items on the budget “like a Christmas tree.”
The budget suspends a voter-passed initiative giving cost-of-living increases to teachers, something lawmakers have frequently refused to fund. The plan makes other cuts in school funding, but also increases funding in areas such as dropout prevention and failing schools.
In addition, Republicans said they would increase money spent on preschool and college.
Republicans say K-12 education should be funded before other programs and in a separate budget — hence the lack of specificity on other spending areas. But Democrats criticized the plan for being incomplete.
“It’s a statement. It doesn’t do anything until you set it inside a full budget proposal,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan.
The state school boards association said the Legislature needs to fully fund promises made in 2009 and 2010, including money for school buses, to make a dent in its court-mandated responsibility and take pressure off local levies.
Sullivan said nearly $1 billion is the minimum needed to make that down payment and he would like other additions.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org