SEATTLE - Unlike most education advocates, Washington schools chief Randy Dorn doesn't get depressed thinking about the 2010 legislative session.
The state superintendent of public instruction said lawmakers know they have very little choice; they have to find new money to pay for essential programs like K-12 education. But he sees a partial silver lining in the state’s economic crisis: Dorn thinks 2010 will be an excellent time to lay the groundwork for the future of education spending in the state.
“The economy is going to turn around. We’re going to have new revenue,” Dorn said.
In the meantime, Dorn said he is working with lawmakers to figure out a plan for getting the state through the next three years.
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Lawmakers agree that the governor’s proposed budget that takes big chunks out of programs like preschool and college scholarships may just be a placeholder but they aren’t optimistic they will be able to find new dollars for an alternative.
And no one is sure there will be any time for education reform during the 60-day session that begins Jan. 11.
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said she would not support raising taxes until she talks to residents and business owners.
“Without the support of the general public themselves and real help to pass something, I wouldn’t support it,” said McAuliffe, D-Bothell. “We’re all going to just have to go through this together.”
Education cuts proposed in the governor’s supplemental budget, which deals with an expected $2.6 billion shortfall, include:
• Saving $10.5 million by cutting preschool for 3-year-olds in low- income areas.
• Increasing class sizes in kindergarten through fourth grade, for a savings of $110.6 million.
• Suspending the money the state gives to districts that can’t raise much through local property taxes. This would save $142.9 million
• Eliminating state support for gifted education to save $7.4 million.
• Suspending all-day kindergarten for students in schools with the highest poverty levels, saving $33.6 million.
• Cutting state college scholarships by $146 million.
• Cutting between 6 and 12 percent from each university budget.
Attention will focus on keeping essential programs running, leaving little time or money for further reforms, McAuliffe said.
The 2009 Legislature approved a framework for reform including a new way of distributing dollars to schools.
A committee called the Quality Education Council, on which McAuliffe serves, was assigned the job of fleshing out the plan.
That group, chaired by Dorn, appears ready to propose two steps: having the state pay the complete cost of pupil transportation and taking over paying for a variety of expenses, from utilities to textbooks and technology, currently handled by local districts.
But lawmakers are unlikely to approve set-up money for the new transportation system this year, or the more than $300 million the buses and other expenses are estimated to cost by 2012.
McAuliffe’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, said he would steer away from any policy changes where money is involved.
“It’s difficult to be optimistic about goals for the future in our current economic climate,” Quall said.
Quall said he would support tax increases to pay for current expenses, but would prefer any increases be temporary.
Some policy changes related to the state’s application for federal grants through the new Race to the Top competition will get a hearing before his committee, Quall said, but he wasn’t sure of their chances.
President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are pushing innovations such as charter schools, which have been rejected repeatedly by Washington voters.
“The president and Arne Duncan have a belief that things need to change in our public schools. Their vision is somewhat different from our own state’s vision,” Quall said.
The president of the Washington Education Association says the state’s largest teachers union will work with anyone with good ideas for a viable revenue source. But Mary Lindquist wasn’t very interested in talking about education reform, saying that the Quality Education Council seemed to be operating in an alternative universe. She characterized their work as being about lots of big ideas while the rest of the state is fighting to survive.
Although she has been glad to hear Dorn talking about putting off the statewide graduation tests in math and science, Lindquist did not expect the Legislature to have time to talk about assessments.
“I think the revenue picture is going to dominate this session. I don’t know how they can talk about anything else when the state is looking at these kinds of cuts,” she said.