Washington State Lawmakers Approve Education Funding Report

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the state of Washington have approved a progress report to the state Supreme Court on their efforts to fully fund public schools.

The submitted report says lawmakers did as the high court instructed them to and passed a plan for ensuring a constitutional means of paying for public education would be in action by 2018. Last summer, the justices imposed a contempt order on lawmakers for failing to turn in such a plan, and the fines associated with the order have been accruing ever since.
The court imposed a daily $100,00 fine over the legislature’s failure to deliver to fix the state’s school-funding problems.

Still, as Jerry Cornfield of the website HeraldNet writes, Democratic and Republican legislators disagree on whether the report will be enough to convince the state’s justices to lift the contempt order and end the sanctions, which are approaching $28 million in fines.

“I am not going to try to read the court’s mind,” said Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn. “The court’s response is not my greatest concern. My concern is solving the (school funding) inequities across the state.”

The report details the education bills that passed and those that did not. It points out that laws passed in this year’s legislative session will eliminate school district dependency on local property tax levies to fund teacher salaries and basic education. It funds the education sector with an $18.2 billion two-year budget.

Still, the plan has been widely criticized by school officials and lawmakers as a delay tactic. Elaine Thompson of The Olympian notes that the report calls for a task force to study the remaining school-funding issues and promises to solve them next year. A consultant will work this summer to collect detailed financial data from school districts that will help lawmakers determine how much money is needed to fix the state’s school system.

“Obviously, we still have a big step to go, and I think we can continue to make progress as we go forward,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, a Republican, who chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. “Whether or not the court recognizes that, I think we have set up ourselves to get this solved, finally, in the next session.”

Unsurprisingly, the most contentious facing the consultant task-force will be teacher compensation. Reporting for Komonews, Donna Gordon writes that about 20% of the average teacher salary is paid by money that is not directly allocated by the state for teacher salaries. The gap for administrative salaries is much larger at almost 50%. Lawmakers need to know exactly where this money comes from in order to address its sustainability. The justices are urging state lawmakers to replace unaccounted for spending, often accrued from local levies, with state dollars.

Additionally, lawmakers did not address how the state would manage the exorbitant fine placed on it by the judiciary. “I think the fact that we didn’t acknowledge the fine in our budget was the weakest moment that we had,” Sen. Christine Rolfes said. This issue, inevitably, will also have to be dealt with.