Politics & Government

Governor ignores education lawsuit

Despite the shadow of a school funding lawsuit before the Washington Supreme Court, Gov. Chris Gregoire's state budget plan made one thing clear Wednesday: The state isn't likely to make progress this year toward fully paying for basic K-12 education.

Between cuts by the Legislature at last weekend’s special session, which affect the current budget, and the governor’s plans for the next biennium, state support for education is going backward, due also to the sluggish economy and the voters’ refusal to raise taxes in November.

“The past five days have been the worst for students in Washington state in the 30 years I’ve been in education,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn after the governor released her budget. “This budget isn’t all about numbers; it’s about kids. And once again, our kids got cut.”

Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Art Jarvis took it a step further in a letter he sent Wednesday to district employees. “Without a doubt, this is by far the worst budget situation that I have witnessed in my 46-year career,” Jarvis said.

In Tacoma, he said, the cuts will fall on students in the form of larger K-4 class sizes, which could affect more than 40 teaching positions, and slashed funding for special programs such as gifted education, College Bound Scholarships and the Washington Scholars Program.

Local teachers will see frozen salaries, elimination of stipends for rigorous state board certification and more.

“There’s a possibility that the state will consider eliminating each school district’s individual health benefits programs and shifting all school employees to the state’s health plan,” Jarvis wrote. “The theory behind this proposal is that the state could negotiate a better package if more people were part of the plan.”

A coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community organizations previously sued the state over the way it supports education. A King County judge ruled on the case in February, saying the state was not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to fully pay for basic public education.

The state has appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to hear arguments this year.

Thomas F. Ahearne, the attorney representing the coalition, said Wednesday that he recognizes the economic pressures on state government but contends the economy is nearly irrelevant when it comes to education dollars.

“There’s plenty of money in the general fund to fully fund education, which is the paramount duty” of state government, according to the state constitution, he said.

Gregoire said Wednesday that part of the problem is the Legislature has been too broad in redefining basic education, such as including things like all-day kindergarten.

Constitutional provisions were forefront in her mind when discussing what education cuts could be made in the two-year budget, the governor said.

In his February ruling, Superior Court Judge John Erlick acknowledged the state’s efforts at reforming the way it pays for education and encouraged lawmakers to continue that work.

The Legislature approved the next step in education funding reform earlier this year, but lawmakers did not put a down payment on the new system.

In her budget proposal, Gregoire said there also wouldn’t be any money available to start paying for education reform during the next two-year budget cycle.