The Washington Constitution makes education the highest priority of state government, but that doesn't stop lawmakers from cutting the money they spend on schools.
In fact, education spending as a percentage of the state budget has been declining for years.
In the past decade, education spending has gone from close to 50 percent to just above 40 percent of the state budget, despite the fact that some education spending is protected by the constitution.
The key to understanding state spending on education lies in knowing what qualifies as basic education and what does not. The definitions – some obvious, some less so – have been crafted over the years by state lawmakers, with pressure from the Washington Supreme Court.
Paying classroom teachers: basic education. Teacher bonuses for earning national board certification: not basic. Half-day kindergarten: basic. Full-day kindergarten: not.
The list of education programs that can be cut by the Legislature because they do not fall under basic education is relatively short, but they add up to billions of dollars.
Lawmakers this year are looking to cut nearly $5 billion from the state budget for the next two years. Nearly $2 billion will likely come from K-12 education.
Here are the education cuts already on the discussion table for the next biennium, most of which are part of the governor’s budget proposal:
A total of $1 billion from two different class-size reduction programs, one of which was authorized by voters in 2000.
A 6.3 percent cut in levy equalization – money that goes to “property poor” districts that have trouble raising local tax dollars. Many lawmakers oppose this idea, but it would save $39.5 million.
About $99.5 million in teacher bonuses for earning national board certification. A suspension of salarystep increases would cut another $56.3 million from teacher pay.
Voter-approved teacher cost-of-living raises amounting to $253.3 million.
About $18.6 million for gifted or “highly capable” education.
More than $37 million for a variety of teacher training, mentoring and continuing education programs.
About $57 million would be saved by not expanding all-day kindergarten to more school districts.
Another $95.6 million would be saved if the state changes the way it supports the replacement of old school buses.
About $40 million could be saved in the next biennium by putting off the state’s science and math graduation requirements. Eliminating all the graduation requirements related to the High School Proficiency Exam could save more than $84 million.
That list adds up to about $1.7 billion.
Tom Leacy, principal of Federal Way’s Decatur High School, says those numbers have real-world consequences for the state’s children. Federal stimulus dollars helped the district avoid most teacher layoffs during the past two years, but Leacy expects to lose some teachers and increase class sizes next year.
The changes over time at Decatur have been more subtle. U.S. history students haven’t seen a new textbook in about a decade, since Bill Clinton was president. The school librarian makes an appearance only one day a week. Decatur no longer publishes a student newspaper. Janitors still clean bathrooms and other common areas, but classrooms get less attention. Literature classes stopped reading the works of new authors years ago.
State Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, argues that lawmakers need to pay closer attention to the Washington Constitution, pay for education first, and then balance the rest of the budget with what’s left instead of bleeding money out of all state programs.
“That’s a terrible approach,” he said.
If that means cutting health care and social services, so be it, Anderson said.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, calls this year’s state budget process hard and painful.
“The decisions that we make today affect real families in Washington. Real people are losing their health coverage, their safety net,” he said, after helping to craft a supplemental budget for the current fiscal year.
A few significant “unknowns” lurk in the education budget, now and into the future.
When the Washington Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to define basic education and fully pay for it, the court also directed lawmakers to continually update its definition.
For the past few years, committees of lawmakers and other education players have been meeting to discuss how the definition should be updated. Those plans are still a work in progress, but they create an opening for more change.
Some debates that most feel have already been resolved could be reopened this year, including such “done deals” as all-day kindergarten.
Another unknown: the state population. The number of schoolchildren in Washington has been in a lull in recent years but is expected to grow in the next decade. The state will need to find a way to pay for the same services for more kids.