Here we go again. If the Washington Legislature had a sports team, its mascot could fittingly be named The Wimps.
In January, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House are facing what many have estimated is at least a $1.75 billion-a-year funding challenge for K-12 public schools. That’s a tough problem to solve in the best of circumstances.
But our legislators often hit their creative peak when wrestling with questions that help them delay or avoid fixing the state’s illegal school-funding system.
The result: Nearly five years after the state Supreme Court said unanimously in the McCleary case that our state’s method of funding basic education is unconstitutional, lawmakers still don’t know how much it will cost to get into compliance.
As part of the landmark 2012 case, the court gave lawmakers until 2018 to figure out all the pieces of the problem.
For those new to this game, the biggest remaining question in McCleary is how to shift the cost burden for K-12 teacher pay and other basic-education expenses away from voter-approved levies and onto state government’s shoulders. In a nutshell, this means an increase in state spending is needed to replace a large part of levies.
The Washington Constitution says full funding of basic education is the state’s paramount duty. But some districts’ budgets rely on 30 percent or more that is raised from local voter-approved levies to supplement state funding, which creates unequal educational opportunities.
Inequality exists because richer, often urban school districts have an easier time raising large amounts of money to supplement state allotments than poorer, often rural districts. This results in a wider variation, district to district, in staff salaries. Sometimes the variation is many thousands of dollars — even between neighboring districts.
Since 2012, legislators have been happy to take credit for authorizing billions of dollars of new state spending for all-day kindergarten, school transportation, maintenance, supplies and operating costs. But the court’s justices have been waiting for lawmakers to identify a plan that pays for the goals that lawmakers themselves laid out in legislation they passed in 2009-10.
In frustration over the slow pace of lawmakers, justices found the state was in contempt of court last year.
Instead of producing a plan this year to finish the job, the Legislature offered a new excuse for inaction. Democratic and Republican lawmakers on a task force said they needed more time because they didn’t know how much the state would need to fully fund teacher salaries.
So they approved “a plan for a plan” — and asked a consultant to help figure out how much is spent locally today by schools that should be paid by the state. What the consultant found was that an average of $14,651 was provided locally per full-time school staffer as a subsidy of what the state pays.
But the consultant didn’t resolve what share of that is really the state’s responsibility and what share of supplemental pay is a local responsibility, say, for coaching.
The legislative task force is working on that. A question for our ever-creative lawmakers is whether it is a state obligation to pay for professional development of teachers, for time spent on typical daily duties outside the classroom schedule such as grading papers, or even for weekend and summer work.
The easiest thing is to keep fighting over it.
Lawmakers on the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council have already started debating this topic. Last week, Democrats wanted to mark the McCleary cost as $1.75 billion-per-year in the state’s budget outlook, but Republicans on the panel resisted and said any number could be much smaller.
Leaving out a number altogether would preserve the illusion that the state budget is balanced for the coming years, which it isn’t.
If there is a silver lining, it is this: The Washington economy continues to grow. Jobs are being created. Revenue from sales, business and real estate taxes are expected to produce $2.1 billion in reserves for the next biennium that begins July 1, 2017.
But the state also faces a structural budget deficit — if real costs are counted. These are costs for solving McCleary, providing competitive pay for state employees, and improving the functioning of state prisons, psychiatric hospitals and other programs.
If this were football, we might want to see the House and Senate galleries packed next January with people chanting, “Go Wimps, Go!”
But we fear we’d have to wait for the goal-line fumble to produce victory. That may be the only way this team ever scores.