The 2017 legislative cram session that finally produced a state plan to amply fund public education unfortunately will have to continue next year.
The state Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that while the Legislature has made progress, it still has a ways to go before it has fulfilled its constitutional duty in the ongoing McCleary saga.
That means lawmakers will have to push through significant budget changes in next year’s “short” 60-day session, and that likely won’t be easy.
Historically, the even-numbered session years are supposed to be used for relatively minor legislative tweaks to the state budget. That won’t be the case this time around.
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In order to get the job done on time, lawmakers will have to buckle down right after welcoming ceremonies and work fast to meet the financing needs dictated by the new school funding plan.
Legislators went in to triple overtime earlier this year trying to hammer out a new system to pay for K-12 education. The hope was that, at last, their proposal would be good enough to meet the court mandate set for them back in 2012.
Sadly, it didn’t turn out that way.
The court didn’t take issue with the proposed financing model as much as with the time frame.
They didn’t like the state’s plan to wait until September 2019 to fully fund teacher salaries when the deadline is supposed to be the year before.
Ultimately, the justices decided they will continue to retain jurisdiction over the case, and they expect a state progress report by April 9.
They mean it.
The court wrote that if the Legislature misses its spring deadline, it “will immediately address the need to impose additional remedial measures.”
We can’t blame them for the tough stance. The Legislature has had plenty of time to address this issue, and continually kicked it to the following year until it ran out of legislative sessions.
For too long, the state has failed in its “paramount” duty to fully fund K-12 education. To make up for that failure, communities that could afford it used local tax money from school levies to bridge the difference.
But this system allowed students in poorer communities to go without resources that students in other, more affluent areas were able to receive.
To fix that disparity, legislators came up with a plan that shifts reliance on local school levies to the state.
This means an increase in state property taxes, but caps local property tax levies beginning in 2019. In some school districts the result will be an increase in local taxes. In others — like the Tri-Cities — it will be lower.
The justices said the school funding plan eventually would achieve compliance, but it is not there yet and that they “cannot accept part compliance as full compliance.”
Another hurdle for lawmakers will be the concerns raised from school officials throughout the state over the details in the school funding proposal.
Now that they have had time to study it, many are concerned about which programs are included in basic education and covered by the state, and which ones must be funded with local money.
For instance, it appears special education falls outside the bounds of state funding, which is surprising. If that is the case, lawmakers need to figure out a way to fix that.
It’s a sure bet there will be other concerns raised as lawmakers get closer to finalizing this significantly new way to fund education in our state.
We hope lawmakers enjoy their upcoming holiday and that they get some rest.
Once the 2018 session starts, they will have to work hard from the get-go if they are going to meet the latest court-ordered McCleary deadline.