That is the conundrum facing the Legislature when it convenes in January, with the leash for funding public schools growing ever shorter. Lawmakers have known since the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling in McCleary v. Washington that a big bill is coming for their constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” of adequately funding public education, yet progress has been slow.
Small steps were taken by the 2013 Legislature and large ones were taken this year, but the destination remains far in the distance. The 2015-17 budget provides $19.2 billion for K-12 education, but an estimated $3.5 billion more will be required per biennium. The Supreme Court has held lawmakers in contempt for failing to devise an adequate plan for school funding, and has imposed a fine of $100,000 a day. With the court demanding that the problem be addressed before the 2017-18 school year, that places pressure on the coming legislative session.
The problem? Well, it is two-fold. Next year’s Legislature is scheduled for a short 60-day session, as is the norm in non-budget-writing years. Oh, and November is election time for all members of the House of Representatives, many members of the Senate and Gov. Jay Inslee. Rather than hand taxpayers a large bill for funding schools, the temptation is to kick the can yet again.
Last week, in presenting a proposed supplemental budget for 2016, Inslee acknowledged, “Consensus on these solutions is going to take longer than a 60-day session.” Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, responded to Inslee’s proposal with: “We’ve been waiting four years for the governor to produce a balanced budget. I guess we’re going to have to keep waiting.”
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So while the politicking has begun, the situation remains dire. Despite the logistical complications, the issue remains a matter of when, not if, lawmakers will fully fund public education. While the Supreme Court has retained an enforcement role, the definition of “full funding” is one devised by the Legislature and not the whims of justices, meaning that it is time for lawmakers to live up to their word.
The primary frustration comes not from lawmakers failing to address the issue, but from their failure to come up with a long-term plan. Thus far, the approach has been for them to plan to plan, rather than making the necessary difficult decisions. “The State has not shown how it will achieve full funding of all elements of basic education by 2018,” said an order signed in August by all nine of the court’s justices. “The State urges the court to hold off on imposing sanctions, to wait and see if the State achieves full compliance by the 2018 deadline. But time is simply too short for the court to be assured that, without the impetus of sanctions, the State will timely meet its constitutional obligations.”
Inslee has supported a statewide capital-gains tax to help pay for schools, an option declined by Republicans in the Legislature. Most recently, he proposed closing four tax loopholes to pay for an increase in teacher salaries — but those ideas previously have been rejected. Meanwhile, Democrats have balked at other proposals, such as statewide collective bargaining for teachers, which would be sensible if state funding largely replaces local school levies.
For several years now, both sides have been busy taking a kick at the proverbial can, and they likely would prefer to do it again this year. But they are running out of road.