Lawmakers must show commitment to education

March 3, 2013 

Making sure schools are amply funded is a goal we share with many other Washingtonians.

Last month, 71 percent of Tacoma School District voters approved Proposition 1 – the first passage of a construction bond in Tacoma since 2001 and an all-time record for voter support in Tacoma. Fourteen schools, many of which were built in the 1920s, will be renovated or replaced.

The passage of Proposition 1 could not have come at a better time. Not only will the $500 million package invest in local jobs at a fragile economic time, the funds will improve the learning environments of many of the district’s nearly 29,000 students.

Tacoma’s residents have delivered a resounding message that should echo through the halls of Olympia: “Our children come first!”

In these still-tough fiscal times, residents in both Tacoma and Seattle, which also passed two major school measures totaling $1.25 billion, are saying education is important enough to fund. Legislators should take note of that.

We are concerned they won’t.

One of the things that makes Washington unique and special is Article IX of the state Constitution, which begins: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”

The second section expands on that commandment by stating that the Legislature “shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.”

The words “ample” and “uniform” mean that we do not allow the inequity of rich school districts and poor school districts based on local funding. In Washington, all students are supposed to get the same educational opportunity no matter where they live.

For decades, however, school districts such as Tacoma have been forced to rely on voter support of local tax dollars to fund the most basic of services – due to a lack of ample state funding. Thirty years ago the state Supreme Court said relying on unstable and unequal local levy funding for basic education was unconstitutional.

Last year, the court said it again, in McCleary v. Washington, with these words: “If the state’s funding formulas provide only a portion of what it actually costs a school to pay its teachers, get kids to school and keep the lights on, then the Legislature cannot maintain that it is fully funding basic education through its funding formulas.”

Now the clock is ticking down on another legislative session without a solid plan to fulfill the state’s obligation. This year, as for the past several years, legislators have debated how to reform our schools and increase accountability for student learning.

Tacoma has served as a lighthouse of innovation, spent local dollars to fund all-day kindergarten and extended day learning programs, redirected funds to expand the number of preschools and watched its math test scores and graduation rates rise.

But regardless what reforms we adopt or don’t adopt at the local or state levels, our schools will still need buses, staff, books, computers, lights and heat. And the state needs to fund 100 percent of those costs without the use of levy dollars. That is what the state constitution and the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision demand.

Finally, after years of study, the Legislature has passed bills committing the state to full funding of all-day kindergarten for all children, lower class sizes in grades K-3 and hiring of more educational staff. We took these steps because unequivocal research showed these changes were necessary to give all our kids the opportunity to succeed and reach our rigorous state learning goals.

Now is the time to actually begin funding those commitments before the clock runs out on this legislative session.

Randy I. Dorn is the state superintendent of public instruction. Carla Santorno is the superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools.

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