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Legislative session ends on time with basic ed funding unresolved

OLYMPIA - House Bill 2797 and Senate Bill 6483 have a lot in common. Both increased funding for K-3 classroom construction, both had bipartisan sponsorship and both failed to reach the governor’s desk.

In McCleary v. Washington, the state Supreme Court ruled the state was not sufficiently funding basic education. Earlier this year, the court ordered legislators to quicken the pace of funding to meet McCleary obligations - including K-3 class size reductions.

According to the National Education Association, Washington state is fourth worst in the nation for classroom sizes.

Gov. Jay Inlee said there was not enough done in the final budget to address the state’s constitutional obligation to adequately fund education. While legislators approved about $1 billion in new education funding last year, the state Supreme Court, which has already ruled legislators are underfunding basic education, issued a new order in January that the state was not moving fast enough to meet its own funding timelines and called for “immediate, concrete action … not simply promises.”

In response to the court order, Inslee proposed closing tax loopholes to make another $200 million investment toward meeting the court-mandated basic education costs related to supplies and teacher salaries. He called on legislators to follow suit and do the same.

Ultimately, the supplemental budget passed by the legislature includes a modest $58 million more for schools.

“I appreciate that we took at least a small step forward, but given how big our challenge is, it’s very disappointing the legislature did not take the court or our obligation to our children more seriously, nor did they include a long overdue cost-of-living adjustment for our teachers,” said Inslee.

House Bill 2797 would have sold $700 million in lottery-backed bonds to fund K-3 classroom construction, and passed out of the House 90-7 with bipartisan support. It failed to make it to the Senate floor after State Treasurer Jim McIntire said lottery-backed bonds were too risky.

“We couldn’t get traction for it over here. There was too much opposition,” said Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent), prime sponsor of SB 6483. “This was kind of a work-around to see if we could get support, but we’re still not there.”

SB 6483 would have sold $825 million in general-obligation bonds - as opposed to lottery-backed revenue bonds - to modernize STEM facilities, fund all-day kindergarten and reduce K-3 class sizes.

After the bill failed to pass out of the Senate Rules Committee last Wednesday morning, the second to the last day of the 2014 legislative session, Keiser said: “We’ll see. Miracles do happen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

Sen. Bruce Dammeier (R-Puyallup), who is a member of the Senate Rules Committee, voted to put the bill on floor, but said it was a matter of timing.

“I think there’s a strong feeling that those are very good topics and that concept is resonating with the legislature,” he said. “But to make that kind of decision that impacts four biennia with two days left in a short session - it’s not the best way to make that policy.”

Several bills failed to make it out of the chambers this session, including bills to fund teacher cost-of-living adjustments, close tax exemptions for basic education and amend teacher evaluations to maintain the federal waiver for the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The problem, I think, we see somewhat similarly, it’s the solution that is very different,” Dammeier said.

“So to assume that we’d be able to reconcile these two approaches and get the legislature to agree - not in two days. Not in two weeks. Probably not in two months,” he said.

The House Democrats proposed a supplemental budget earlier this year that included a bill that would raise $100 million for basic education by closing tax exemptions. Leaders in the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus said that education funding discussions would be better suited for next session when the 2015-2017 biennium budget is on the table.

“We’ll probably be looking at this for next year,” said Rep. Drew MacEwen (R-Union), co-sponsor on House Bill 2797. “I think later this fall, we can sit down and hammer out something that both chambers can agree to.”

Inslee said lawmakers will be faced with some very difficult choices next year. “I hope Senate majority leaders next year will be more committed to dealing with the very real need to direct additional resources for basic education,” said the governor.

The $155 million supplemental budget enacted last Thursday allocated $58 million for K-12 materials and operating costs, but included no provisions for K-3 class size reductions.

Inslee also noted another disappointment was the failure of a compromise bill to preserve Washington’s No Child Left Behind waiver and the accompanying $38 million from the federal government that school districts currently use to support struggling students.

“This was a bittersweet session for our children,” said Inslee. “While we took a few good steps forward in some areas, politics got in the way of many of the difficult but pragmatic and practical decisions we needed to make.”

‑ Elliot Suhr is an intern for the WNPA Olympia News Service.

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