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Governor's Ed. Agenda Aims To Meet McCleary Sooner, Only Partially Funds Class Size Vote

Ted S. Warren
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Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday proposed pumping an additional $1.3 billion into Washington's K-12 schools in the next two-year budget, which he says would allow the state to meet a high court mandate to fully-fund basic education a year early.

But Inslee's $2.3 billion education plan, which also calls for increased spending on early learning and continuing a tuition freeze at the state's colleges, proposes very little spending on the reductions in class sizes voters approved with their passage of Initiative 1351 in November.

Inslee's plan does call for $448 million in new funding to reduce class sizes in grades K-3, as the state Supreme Court has mandated in its landmark McCleary school funding decision. While that would also fulfill a small chunk of I-1351, it's well short of the estimated $2 billion needed to begin phasing in class size reductions from kindergarten through high school.

Enough To Fund McCleary?

"What we've decided here is that we cannot fully fund [the class size initiative] in this first biennium, so what we've chosen to do is fully-fund the K-3 portion of that this biennium," said David Schumacher, who heads the state's Office of Fiscal Management. "There's just simply not enough money available."

Inslee also proposes $751 million in new state spending on school operating costs and supplies and $107 million to fully fund full-day kindergarten statewide — both McCleary-mandated expenditures. Schumacher says these increases fully satisfy the provisions of House Bill 2776, a 2010 law often used as a benchmark for meeting the Supreme Court's ruling.

"If the court broadens their interest, then we'll have to address that," Schumacher said, "but this fully-funds 2776."

Class Size Initiative: 'Fund It Or Suspend It'

But while Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, praised the Inslee administration's call to extend a freeze on university tuition rates, he also called for the governor to take a clearer stand on I-1351. It takes two-thirds of House and Senate members to suspend, modify or repeal a voter-approved initiative, and Dammeier said the governor's leadership is needed to shape the debate in the legislature.

"You either have to fund it or suspend it," Dammeier said of I-1351, "and we have to understand what [the governor] thinks. It doesn't appear to me that he's funding it."

Senate Republicans speaking to reporters Monday said their caucus would advocate suspending the initiative. But the state's largest teachers union urged the governor to not only leave I-1351 intact, but to begin implementation of the initiative.

"We call on Gov. Inslee to respect the will of the voters and to begin phasing in smaller class sizes at every grade level as required by law," said Washington Education Association president Kim Mead in a statement. "Moving forward, any effort to overturn or amend I-1351 is a vote to increase class sizes, denying students the individual attention they need to succeed in school."

Revenue Sources

Absent from Inslee's announcement were specifics about how the governor would pay for his proposals, though his office has promised to release details at its budget announcement on Thursday. The governor has already promised his budget will outline at least $1 billion in new revenues.

While Inslee has strongly advocated in recent weeks for a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, Inslee and his staff haven't yet confirmed their budget will include one. They could also conceivably propose to implement a capital gains tax or to end tax breaks.

Dammeier said it was "flawed logic" to say the only way to muster up the necessary funding to meet McCleary obligations and other budget needs was through increasing taxes.

Investments From Cradle To College

The governor also proposes adding more than 6,300 new slots to the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, or "ECEAP." The move is in keeping with a recommendation from state early learning officials who've called for adding thousands of slots to state pre-K programs. In the 2018-2019 school year, access to early learning programs becomes an entitlement under state law.

The proposal includes more than $100 million in funding for a public-private fund that provides college scholarships for low- and middle-class students who pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering, math or health fields. It would also add more than $25.5 million to Washington's College Bound Scholarship program — enough to send more than 5,500 additional at-risk students to college tuition-free.

Inslee's proposal includes a number of smaller-ticket items, such as for state support for infants with special needs, for family engagement coordinators at high-poverty elementary schools, more guidance counselors at high-poverty middle schools and several programs designed to increase high school graduation rates.

Read the governor's full proposal >>>

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.