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Despite Consensus On Funding McCleary, State Schools Chief Pushing Lawmakers To Do More

John Froschauer
AP Photo
FILE - Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn stands across the state capitol campus in Olympia, Wash., in a 2009 photo.

For all the things that divide Washington state lawmakers' competing budget plans, K-12 education spending doesn't appear to be one of them.

Budget proposals from Senate Republicans, House Democrats and from Gov. Jay Inslee have all called for between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion in new schools spending to satisfy the Washington Supreme Court's McCleary funding decision.

Enter Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, who said Tuesday none of these proposals constitute the "complete plan" the High Court demanded by the end of this session to fully-fund K-12 education. He unveiled his own plan to spend even more — around $2 billion — over the next two years to satisfy the court's order.

"This is the year for something big. This is the year for the grand plan. And I didn't see the grand plan," Dorn said at a press conference. "So we're putting out the grand plan."

Cutting Class Sizes, But More Gradually

The superintendent's cost estimates for fulfilling the McCleary mandate have been consistently higher than lawmakers' projections. Last December, Dorn even sent the governor a letter essentially saying Inslee's budget plan was about $3 billion short of satisfying McCleary; that "$4.5 billion is the minimum level of new funding required."

Politically, Dorn said his new plan is more realistic. He maintains current law calls for across-the-board class size reductions — and lawmakers' plans to cut class sizes in only Grades K-3 won't cut it with the court. But his new plan delays some of those class size reductions to phase in by the 2020-21 school year, rather than 2018-19.

"I've always had my superintendent's hat on, and I kind of had to put my legislative hat on and say, 'What can we actually do?,'" Dorn said. "'What makes sense? Do we have enough teachers to [cut class sizes K-12]? Do we have enough classrooms to do this?'"

Full-Day Kindergarten

Among the clear directives the Supreme Court handed down in its McCleary decision: the legislature must pay for any child who wants to enroll in all-day kindergarten. While both Senate and House proposals fully-fund that initiative by the end of this two-year budget cycle, Dorn's proposal delays that funding into the next budget cycle.

Fully-funding all-day kindergarten is part of a list of changes House Appropriations Committee Chair Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said the legislature must fund to avoid sanctions from the Court.

But he said class size reductions aren't on that list. Hunter said Dorn's deriving that mandate from the an advisory committee whose recommendations don't have the force of law.

"He assumes additions for lots and lots of additional staff that the legislature has not said is part of the definition of basic ed. That's the big difference between his numbers and ours," Hunter said.

Dorn has argued the court references that advisory committee's opinion and, essentially, makes it binding.

Significant Costs

Even if lawmakers were to adopt Dorn's plan, it would require significant expenditures from future legislatures over the next two budget cycles.

In 2017, lawmakers would need to find an additional $3.9 billion in education funding under Dorn's plan for the next two-year budget. In 2019, they'd need another $3.3 billion on top of that — much of it to hiring new staff. Dorn said those are the levels of spending the Court is demanding.

"I'm not making up these things," he said. "The pieces I put on that chart ... are current law that [legislators] have to pay for, and I'm just telling them, 'Hey, this is what it costs.'"

Hunter disagrees. While he says he'd love to find the money for additional K-12 staff, he says it's not a priority lawmakers share.

"It's probably not the highest and best investment of money in improving outcomes for children," Hunter said. "If I had as much money as he's proposing adding, I'd add it to our early learning program long before I would add it to non-teaching staff in seventh grade, because we'd have demonstrably better outcomes."

Dorn's Key Problem: Local Property Taxes

Critically, Dorn said lawmakers must fix a basic equity problem this session: local property tax levies in many districts cover significant portions of expenses that state dollars are supposed to fund, such as teachers salaries.

"The court said, 'No, you can't do that, that's a state responsibility,'" Dorn said.

Neither budget proposal currently includes an overhaul of the property tax levy system, but Dorn said it is possible to structure a "levy swap" proposal — where local property taxes go down and state property taxes go up — to cover some of the cost difference between his budget and legislative budgets.

Hunter said both Democrats and Republicans will be floating "levy swap" or levy overhaul ideas this week.

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