Senate passes McCleary funding bill to guarantee $12,500 per student and big reforms; House McCleary bill falls short on funding and reforms

Feb 9, 2017

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I’ve been closely following the two McCleary education funding bills now working their way through the legislature. On February 1st, the Senate passed its comprehensive solution to the 2012 McCleary school funding case.  The bill is called the Education Equality Act, SB 5607.  Days later, on February 7th, the House Appropriations Committee heard another response to McCleary, House Bill 1843. The two bills reflect opposing philosophies. The Senate bill is bold, progressive and innovative, offering both full funding for students and smart policy reforms. The House bill is far more conservative, with neither funding reforms nor improvements to the way money is spent.  The House approach would essentially double-down on the current system, with no reforms as the court called for in McCleary.

The judges in the McCleary decision observed that, since the late 1970’s, the legislature of Washington has failed to meet its paramount constitutional duty to make ample provision for the education of every child residing within its borders. The judges even employed a controversial tactic, called “retained jurisdiction,” to try to force the legislature to comply with its demands.

Specifically, McCleary says the legislature should provide regular and dependable revenue for the schools, and reduce reliance on local levies.  But McCleary is about more than just money.  The McCleary judges said, “several troubling statistics about the state of the school system in Washington,” including low graduation rates and that younger workers are less educated than older workers (see page 23 of the majority opinion).

So they ruled that, “Fundamental reforms are needed for Washington to meet its constitutional obligation. Pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed” (see page 69 of the majority opinion).

In response, the legislature has added $4.6 billion to the schools, expanding education spending by 34 percent, and increasing per-student money by almost $3,000.  Despite the boost in funding, the McCleary judges say basic reforms should be passed in the 2017 legislative session. The Senate and House bills represent the very different approaches these chambers are taking to meet these final McCleary demands.

The Senate bill would create a per-student funding guarantee to provide a minimum of $12,500 for every student, regardless of zip code, so every child has fair and equitable funding across the state. Special needs students would get more. The bill would add $1.4 billion more to schools, on top of current increases, and create a new state property tax levy, significantly reducing reliance on local levies.  In addition, the Senate bill offers many cutting-edge reforms, including paying teachers like professionals, based on performance and advancements in student learning.

The Senate bill would also allow people with advanced training and real-life experience to teach in public schools.  Right now public schools are barred from hiring anyone who does not have a special state-issued certificate, while private schools can hire any qualified applicant.  The Senate bill would end discrimination in public school hiring.  During floor debate, on the Senate bill, Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said that “we need more people with real-world experience in the classroom.”

The House Democrats’ plan is very conservative, with no fundamental funding or spending reforms. It would continue the legislature’s traditional reliance on local levies, which favor property-rich districts, and proposes significant salary increases for teachers and school administrators. Democrats have said they want about $1.6 billion in new taxes over the next two years to fund pay raises, increasing to $7.0 billion in the next four years. The bill would not provide property tax relief, nor does it specify how the money would be raised.  Separately, Democrats have proposed a new carbon tax that would raise the price of fuel, a capital gains income tax, and raising state business and occupation taxes.

After so many years of stale, go-nowhere debate, it is deeply refreshing to see new ideas in education emerge in the Senate. The McCleary court said the state has failed to meet its paramount duty for decades.  The advantage of the House and Senate education bills is they present a clear choice:  double-down by adding more money to an unreformed system, or adopt a new per-student guarantee of $12,500, plus many bold and important reforms to improve how the money is spent.  The smartest policy, in my view, is in the Senate bill, because it is based on fairness and equal treatment for all students, even for those living in the poorest school districts, and would provide schools the resources to ensure that every child learns.  



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