There may be hope for the Washington Legislature, after all. The Republican-controlled Senate relented last week in its effort to delay a target date for fixing the state’s school funding problem until 2018.
This enabled the Senate and House finally to pass their first bill of the 60-day session — with just over two weeks now left.
The measure, Senate Bill, 6195, establishes that lawmakers will find a way in 2017 to end the state’s over-reliance on local, voter-approved property tax levies to subsidize the costs of basic education.
The state Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary case in 2012 that the state was in violation of the state Constitution for failing to fully fund basic education, while relying excessively on levies that let rich districts easily raise extra funds that poorer districts cannot. This has led to many disparities including unequal teacher pay.
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The 2017-18 school year is the deadline the court set out years ago for full funding.
Then last fall the court’s nine justices found lawmakers in contempt for their collective failure to come up with a plan for fully funding K-12 schools. The court fined the Legislature as a whole $100,000 a day .
The bill is meant to answer the contempt issue. It now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee who is expected to sign it mid-week.
The measure also sets up a task force to figure out how the state can carry out its school funding reforms. And it requires a state policy institute to hire a consultant and finally nail down the detailed costs if the state is able finally to replace levy subsidies with state funds.
The answers to those questions are likely to weigh heavily on the 2017 Legislature. Some estimates are that $3.5 billion in new state money – or more – will be needed to replace levies.
Some Democrats voted against the bill because it doesn’t identify a solution this year. On the other side, Republican Rep. Matt Manweller of Ellensburg complained that lawmakers still haven’t halted school districts from negotiating higher salaries that are subsidized by levies.
That salary issue – and others related to compensation – have been too hot for this Legislature to handle. One approach that has the support of state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn is statewide bargaining of K-12 employee wages and health care – just as state employees now negotiate with the governor.
But a legislative workgroup that met late last year at Inslee’s request to develop a plan for solving the levy issue did not even take up that matter.
Measured in geological time, it won’t be much longer until lawmakers take up the real issue of finding enough money to fully pay for basic education.