This article was published in the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber on December 17, 2014

Funding schools presents a challenge in 2015

By SHARON NELSON
For The Beachcomber

The new year is upon us. That means holiday celebrations, new beginnings and “the greatest gift of all” — the start of another legislative session in Olympia.

In my last guest piece for The Beachcomber, I discussed the business left unfinished by the Republican majority in 2014: education funding, transportation, jobs and the banning of toxic chemicals in children’s and household goods. Addressing these outstanding challenges in 2015 will likely lead to one of the toughest sessions in our state’s history.

And why will it be so tough? Largely two reasons: Another divided Legislature and finding significant funding for an education system that has been short-changed for far too long.

Following November’s elections, Washington largely maintained the status quo with a state House and governor’s mansion under Democratic control, and a Senate that is controlled by a narrow Republican majority of 26-23. A few “yeas” and “nays” in the Senate make all the difference.

That is the political reality, so what is the financial one? Chiefly, 2015 is a budget-writing year. And as we write the biennial budget (covering 2015-17), we face significant outstanding debt regarding K-12 education. So urgent is this funding need that the state was found in contempt by the state Supreme Court over non-compliance with the education funding decision known as McCleary. If we don’t make real progress this session, the state could face court sanctions.

In order to make this necessary progress and fulfill what Washington’s constitution calls our “paramount duty” to our kids, the Legislature must fund school essentials like classroom materials, heating and electricity and busses. We must also lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and provide all-day kindergarten. We’ve committed to this; we just haven’t paid for it yet. In addition, the passage of I-1351 by voters in November calls for lowering all class sizes and increasing school staffing, adding to the state’s financial responsibilities.

That is the skeleton of 2015’s challenges. What is the meat and heart of it? Put plainly — ideology. The question is no longer if we will fund education, but how.

“Fund education first” is something you’ll probably hear a lot if you follow the Legislature in 2015. But it is a slogan, not a solution.

After all, what would that look like? What would happen if we took more money out of mental health and higher education and further put off a transportation package? Policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If kids are hungry and sick, they don’t get good test scores. You can’t attract and retain great teachers by paying them under market value. And you can’t get kids to and from school safely on crumbling roads and bridges.

We cannot do one-time budgetary tricks and gimmicks or further devastate funding critical to children and families. I think your hard-earned money should buy more than the bare minimum.

Governing requires compromise. I am going to Olympia in January with an open mind and all options on the table. The answers to our funding challenges won’t be found in slogans, but in a combination of measures that will likely include closing tax loopholes, adding revenue and considering tax fairness.

I am also committed to finding solutions that address the inherent injustice in our state educational system. To diminish this is to doom our state to an ever-widening achievement gap between low- and high-income districts. The state has paid less and less to schools over the years, resulting in increased success in districts that can afford to pass levies and put time into grant writing and declining success in districts that cannot.

Equal education is equal opportunity. Education is the bootstrap by which Americans pull themselves up and the early investment that leads to reduced need for costly government services down the road. A recent study revealed that a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year of public school, for children from poor families, leads to “more completed years of education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.”

Given the season, I don’t want to end on a note of Grinchy-ness. I hope to shed light on the challenges before us, not drop them into your stocking like a billion-dollar lump of coal.

So I’ll leave you with this: The flip side of a challenge is opportunity.

Aristotle said, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” This is going to be a tough session. But done right, we can sow the seeds of a better Washington that will be seen not only in our classrooms, but on our highways and in our communities from Maury Island to Harbor Island, Port Angeles to Pullman.

— State Sen. Sharon Nelson represents the 34th District. She lives on Maury Island.