Policy Note: Is public education spending "constitutionally protected"?
State officials say they will receive an estimated $7 billion less in revenue over the next three years than they expected to get. Then they enacted the 2019-21 state budget. Passed at a time of record economic growth and low unemployment, lawmakers increased state spending by 19 percent, believing that over the next two years taxpayers would provide the funding.
The COVID-19 health crisis and subsequent government-ordered economic lock-down have sharply changed these expectations. State leaders are now seeking savings in a budget to which they added billions of dollars in new spending.
Fifty-one percent of the state budget is spent on the schools, an increase from 43 percent ten years ago. Examining education spending is a logical place for lawmakers to look for savings. Yet some observers say the education budget is “constitutionally protected” and cannot be changed.
Representing this view, Senator Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge), Chair of Senate Ways and Means Committee, recently said the budget for K-12 schools cannot be cut. In a news interview she said, “Let’s for the sake of argument, let’s say it is a $50 billion two-year budget, a little bit more than half of the budget is for the K-12 schools, for the school system, so that constitutionally cannot be cut.”1
This Policy Note examines whether this statement is true; whether the legislature can in fact make changes in the education system that would result in better outcomes for children and a slowing of spending increase for the state.
1. State officials say they will receive an estimated $7 billion less in revenue over the next three years than they expected to get when they enacted the 2019-21 state budget.
2. Some observers are saying the constitution protects education spending from cuts. This is not the case.
3. State spending on K-12 schools has doubled in the last eight years, from $13.5 billion in 2013 to $27.3 billion today.
4. The state supreme court has said education spending is “not etched in stone” and can be changed.
5. The legislature has an obligation to review the basic education program as the needs of students and the demands of society evolve.
6. The legislature can make budget changes to improve the quality of education services.
7. The legislature has many options to balance the state budget in ways that improve the quality of education services.