In a new definition of what passes for progress, Washington lawmakers are working on a plan to fix the state school funding problem. More accurately, we might call it a plan to have a plan.
We must admit: This is one step better than having partisan lawmakers planning to make a plan for how to plan.
This may all sound outrageous to some readers. After all, the sharply divided House and Senate spent 176 days last year haggling over budgets, and they struggled mightily in 2013, too — agreeing over the two strenuous budget cycles to fork over more than $2 billion in new funding for K-12 schools in response to a Supreme Court decision that schools are not amply financed, which the state Constitution requires.
The problem in a nutshell is that a huge share of school districts use local voter-approved property tax levies for at least 28 percent of school expenses, including salaries. And this leads to inadequate funding in some districts and great inequality of opportunities between rich districts and poor ones.
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They also face a “levy cliff” — a day in 2018 when a temporary lift in the limit on levies expires and many districts see a 4 percent drop in what they can collect.
That is why the word plan is becoming so important.
“Plan” was the new buzz word last week when legislative leaders met with reporters at the yearly Associated Press session preview. They happily reported that an eight-member task force, brought together by Gov. Jay Inslee, has developed a proposal that would chart the way to fixing the school funding problems by 2018.
This proposal is the plan to create a plan.
What’s interesting is that legislators in the work group were unable to say much about what is in the plan-to-plan. They did say what is not in it — such as how much money is needed to equalize pay for teachers.
Or how much money is actually spent today on basic education using local voter-approved levies.
Or how the state should limit the ability of rich school districts to outbid poor ones to offer better salaries to top teachers.
No, their big plan is to collect more data — on teacher pay as it varies among school districts and how much levy support goes for basic education.
That may not sound like progress. But our Legislature has been struggling with the challenge of fully funding basic education since the mid- to late-1970s. That was when Judge Robert Doran in Thurston County Superior Court said the state’s school financing system was unconstitutional in failing to adequately provide for basic education, and the Supreme Court agreed.
Things got better for a few years. But fast forward 35 years, and our Supreme Court said it again in the McCleary case in 2012.
This may strike readers as a bit late in the game to discover that crucial data is needed.
But that’s the way it’s scripted in Olympia this year. The hard stuff comes later. After the next election.