Politics & Government

State’s McCleary report skips the hard questions

In grading the Washington Legislature’s latest report to the Supreme Court on its compliance with McCleary v. State of Washington, the landmark school finance decision, we need to begin with some “at leasts.”

As in: At least they have stopped trying to make us feel sorry for them;

At least they have stopped trying to reargue a case they lost by a unanimous decision 18 months ago;

And at least they have stopped whining that the court has retained jurisdiction over the case until 2018 to make sure the Legislature and governor follow the constitutional duty to amply fund public education.

All three of those annoying traits were contained in the Legislature’s first report to the court a year ago, a report Chief Justice Barbara Madsen described as having fallen short. In contrast, last week’s filing is short and direct, listing the financial and policy actions taken during the regular and special sessions that ended two months ago.

“The 2013-15 operating budget contains $982.0 million in enhancement to the program of basic education,” stated the report of a joint select committee.

It detailed the areas where funding was enhanced, matching them to the gaps pointed out by the court — student transportation ($131.7 million), materials, supplies and operating costs ($374 million), full-day kindergarten ($89.8 million) and class-size reduction ($103.6 million).

The final budget also put more money into learning assistance, new aid to students moving from bilingual education and several new initiatives to support a 24-credit high school graduation requirement (even though the Legislature failed to authorize such a reform).

Showing the money is a big improvement over last year’s report that sought credit for simply slowing the recession-era cuts to education. But the court might point out that, yet again, the Legislature has not presented a plan to get from down payment to full compliance by 2018. Madsen was clear that the court needed to see a road map so it could measure the state’s progress.

“It is incumbent upon the State to lay out a detailed plan and then adhere to it,” Madsen wrote. “… the report submitted at the conclusion of the 2013 legislative session must set out the State’s plan in sufficient detail to allow progress to be measured according to periodic benchmarks between now and 2018.”

The Legislature has defined basic education. With the passage of House Bill 2261 in 2009, it established funding formulas for various aspects of education. And it has unofficially agreed that the total of new money must reach $4 billion by 2018.

It has not, however, begun the hard work of reducing reliance on local school levies. It has done nothing to tackle the politically explosive task of restructuring how teachers are paid, shifting costs to the state and away from local sources.

And it has not been able to agree on a clear demand of the court — a funding source that is “regular and dependable.” Democrats have pushed for dedicated funding sources but have relied on a gimmicky plan to close tax loopholes. Republicans are sticking with the “fund education first” rhetoric, suggesting there will be money left over for all the other stuff the state funds or secretly hoping there won’t be.

That disconnect is why the $1 billion enhancement they’re all so proud of had to be paid for in an irregular and undependable way. As pointed out by Mary Jean Ryan, acting chairwoman of the state Board of Education, it relied heavily on transfers from the state construction budget, some one-time savings and by again exempting the state from a voter initiative requiring annual cost-of living raises for teachers.

“It seems clear that something structural will need to happen before the Legislature can support a fully funded program of basic education and sustain it through good economic times and bad,” Ryan said in written testimony to the select committee.

What now? The big question is whether the court will let the politicians again ignore the big question: How exactly do they plan to pay for it all?