The state of Washington faces serious deficits yet again this year and is struggling to come up with a budget that will cover the basic cost of education. In January the Supreme Court ruled in McCleary v. State that by 2018 Washington must fulfill its constitutional obligation to pay for basic public education — and that date is non-negotiable.
In 2009 the state passed House Bill 2261, which expanded the definition of basic education to include free all-day kindergarten. This reform, among others including transportation for the state's million or so school children, reducing class size, and providing the supplies to keep classrooms running, must be government funded by 2018.
Donna Gordon Blankenship of the Associated Press reports:
"A down payment on all of that will cost at least a billion dollars in the next biennium to answer the Supreme Court's orders."
Despite growing budget deficits, $300 million was cut from state funding to education this year. Such a figure is not terribly surprising, however, as funding cuts have been trending this way for the last decade: in the last 10 years education spending has gone from nearly 50 percent of the overall state budget to just above 40 percent today. This coming January, the education deficit is projected to increase to $900 million for the next two-year budget period.
Under the mounting pressure of the McCleary decision, lawmakers face the difficult decision of whether to cut state spending or raise taxes and fees. Neither is without controversy.
Among the suggested cuts are preschool health insurance for the poor, widely used social services, and higher education. Representative Ross Hunter, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has also suggested recovering money though prison reforms such as eliminating the three-strikes sentencing rule and closing one prison.
Governor Chris Gregoire believes the Legislature will not be able to find ways to fund basic education without tax increases.
One proposal on the table is a "levy swap". Currently school districts pull money mainly from local property-tax levies to fund what the government will soon be required to pay.
"The plan would replace some local property taxes with a statewide education property tax and essentially take tax money from property-rich taxpayers and distribute it to areas with schools in greater need."
While this may seem unfair, Hunter argues in a Sunday Seattle Times op-ed that it in fact helps equalize the burden across districts, as some districts now are able to raise as much as three times more per student in a local levy than other districts at a third of the cost. Other proposals to bring in more tax revenue include starting a state income tax and raising sales.
Still others suggest that fixing the budget is only a piece of the equation.
"The McCleary decision is not about a dollar amount. It is about embracing a higher level of education programs and services. Reforms offer the smarter investment in some cases. For example, investing in teacher training and better use of technology has a greater chance of improving academic achievement than merely adding a billion to the budget."
Some lawmakers recommend a "move beyond the outdated model of focusing solely on K-12 education to an approach that better funds education for students ages 3-23."
There will surely be a need to combine smart budgeting and innovative reform in the upcoming years if the state is to avoid a legacy of financial difficulties.