State lawmakers start the year with a fresh demerit on their permanent records from the state Supreme Court, and with an assignment from the justices to fully fund schools.
That won't happen in these strapped budget times. But the court's decision Thursday that the Legislature has neglected basic education could shape the debate over where to cut the state spending that is outpacing revenue by nearly $1 billion.
The decision makes it less likely that lawmakers will shorten the school year. Gov. Chris Gregoire called for trimming four days and inviting voters to restore the full year by raising their sales taxes.
"With this court case now, I doubt we'll be able to do that in any way," said Rep. Kathy Haigh, a Shelton Democrat who has supported cutting the year rather than school programs. "I think it really is going to change the picture in some ways."
But other cuts to K-12 education continue to loom. And the session starting today holds other uncertainties for schools - including whether the Legislature will take up charged issues of charter schools and teacher evaluations.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and Mary Lindquist, the head of the Washington Education Association teachers union, saw an identical message in the court decision: more cuts to K-12 are "off the table."
But Gregoire and some Democrats in the Legislature argue that public schools, as the state's single biggest spending area at more than 40 percent of the general-fund budget, can't be completely spared without harming kids helped by other programs.
The Democratic governor is seeking an extra half-penny sales tax for three years to offset cuts to K-12, colleges, social services, prisons and parole. The extra sales tax also would offset her proposed $100 million school-year cut and another $152 million hit to the state's levy-equalization program that helps reduce funding disparities between school districts.
But House Speaker Frank Chopp told reporters last week that there is growing discussion about taking a hands-off approach to anything that is considered part of the state's constitutional requirement to provide basic education.
"We don't want to necessarily leave basic education funding out there hanging for a public vote," said Chopp, who leads majority Democrats in the House.
That would include the 180-day school year. "Shortening the school year is basic ed, and therein lies a problem for us," Gregoire told reporters.
Funding need looming
Minority House Republicans say education should be funded first before drawing up the rest of the budget. Look elsewhere for cuts, said Rep. Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup.
"There is room for a robust kind of new revenue debate, but it shouldn't be based on whether you're going to cut education or not," said Dammeier, the top Republican on the House Education Committee. "If you want to be talking about revenue for education, it needs to be additional revenue, not (to avoid) cutting."
Lawmakers will have to find new tax revenue in the years ahead if they want to follow through on promises made to the schools in 2009 and 2010 to provide adequate funding. Dorn said the Legislature has committed itself to finding an extra $2.5 billion to $4 billion.
"The job of paying for that is what legislators signed up for," Dorn, an Eatonville Democrat, said Friday.
Two top budget writers, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, have ideas for a long-term shift of funding from local to state property taxes. The levy swap would increase the state tax and decrease local levy authority by an equivalent amount, giving school districts a source of funding that is uniform across the state and not dependent on occasional local votes.
Money isn't the only thing on the Legislature's mind.
An expanded system of evaluating teachers and principals is due to start in the 2013-14 school year after being tried out in a few districts around the state, and lawmakers will propose multiple plans this year to fill in details of what happens to teachers with poor evaluations.
Gregoire and Dorn have ideas, and observers are waiting for the details. The Washington Education Association says the state should wait until implementing the evaluation system statewide before making more changes.
Some advocates want to allow charter schools in Washington, one of a few states that doesn't allow the independently run, publicly funded schools. Voters have rejected them three times in the past two decades.
The Washington PTA gave charters an endorsement last fall. The board of another schools group, the League of Education Voters, voted to support charter schools in December and will push legislation, said the group's lobbyist, Frank Ordway.
Ordway said with the right limits on how many and where they set up shop, charter schools could help bridge the achievement gap between poor and minority kids and the rest of the state's students without adding extra expense.
"I think charter schools' time has come in Washington," said Sen. Jim Kastama, a Puyallup Democrat.
Lindquist said she doesn't know how supporters can advocate "with a straight face" for charter schools when traditional schools aren't being properly funded.
"There are lots of things we can do to improve our schools," she said, "but the Supreme Court said (Thursday) the first thing we need to do is fully fund them. ... That's where I hope the Legislature will put their attention this session."