Lawmakers on K-12 funding panel issue competing recommendations

In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, every year on Feb. 2 residents await the sign of a groundhog - Punxsutawney Phil - to forecast the onset of spring. In the Washington state Legislature, lawmakers and other observers were awaiting a sign yesterday of how much members of the Joint Education Task Force could agree on solutions for full state funding of K-12 education (as required by the state Supreme Court's McCleary ruling) in 2017.

Judging by the rather hostile rhetoric that erupted midway through yesterday's task force meeting in Olympia, and the fact that Republicans and Democrats issued two different sets of recommendations, it doesn't seem terribly likely that lawmakers will wrap up their business by the scheduled April 23 end-of-session date.

A brief recap: A bipartisan task force of state representatives and senators have been meeting since last spring to look at how public schools are funded, and how the state can assume full responsibility for funding basic education (as the Supreme Court demanded in McCleary; local districts will no longer be able to fund basic education from local levy dollars). The task force hired a consultant to analyze local school district finances and how different monies - local, state, federal, etc. - are spent. Now, with the beginning of the 2017 session approaching, the task force must present and vote on recommendations for complying with McCleary, then pass those recommendations on to the full Legislature.

In brief, here are highlights from the Democrats' recommendations (this is not a comprehensive list):

  • Spend $7.3 billion over the next four years. Funding sources would include a new capital gains tax, a carbon tax and ending some tax preferences.
  • Phase in a salary allocation model that takes into account the local labor market. Set specific minimum and maximum salary levels for beginning teachers (who would see a raise), administrators and others.
  • Maintain local collective bargaining, including for health insurance benefits.
  • Add four items to the definition of basic education:
    • Class-size reductions for community and technical education (CTE) classes and skills center classes
    • Learning Assistance program, Transitional Bilingual Instruction program and Special Education
    • Highly Capable program
    • Guidance Counselors and Parent Involvement Coordinators

Highlights from the Republicans' "Guiding Principles:"

  • Compensation allocation based on local labor market rates.
  • Raise beginning teacher salaries. No specific amount mentioned.
  • Collective bargaining allowed on salaries, within the new allocation policies. Health insurance benefits would be provided at the state level, so no local collective bargaining on health care.
  • Adopt a "specific list" of enrichment activities to clarify what is basic education and what is not.
  • No specifics on cost or revenue, but including:
    • "Repairing the regressive levy structure," and
    • "the use of existing resources (i.e. redeploy resources more efficiently)"

To be fair, most of the meeting was cordial, and not all members engaged in sniping, which began when state Rep. Pat Sullivan and then some other Democrats dinged the Republican plan for lacking specifics. Sen. John Braun and other GOP members pushed back, saying there were plenty of areas of agreement between the two sides and that buy-in would be required from members outside the task force.

You can watch the whole meeting here. The task force's next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 9.

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