At a press conference Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom told the Seattle Times that “We should never have a conversation that we need new revenue for education.” I was pretty stunned by the line in the sand nature of this comment because I think it is divorced from the reality of what we have to do in the next few years.
When I visit schools in my district and confer with administrators, teachers and parents, I hear about overcrowded classrooms, looming capital construction needs, the shifting of local dollars to pay for the state obligations of the basic education program and the added financial pressure on districts of a state failure to deal with the teacher compensation issue.
One of the most important parts of the McCleary decision was the Supreme Court’s order to increase funding for basic education from sustainable and dependable sources. It’s especially important to find sustainable and dependable funding sources because of the dramatic increases in education funding we are required to make in the coming years.
In the Article IX Committee report to the Supreme Court this summer, a bipartisan and bicameral committee of legislators which I co-chaired unanimously agreed that we need to add an additional $857 million for materials and supplies for school districts – the nuts and bolts of education – in the next biennial budget in 2015. That is nearly 90% of the total gross additional investment we made in last year’s budget in all basic education funding categories, and that is only one of several categories that require enhanced funding. In addition we will have to find $316 million for all-day kindergarten and $1.1 billion for class size reduction, both of which need to be funded fully in the 2017 budget and at least partially in 2015. That is well over $2 billion in additional educational funding in those three categories alone. However, this is likely a low number because our report didn’t even quantify the cost of other elements of the basic education program where we need to increase funding like teacher compensation, the 24-credit high school degree and others. The total additional price tag may well be in the range of $3 billion or more by 2018.
This is current law, not some vague aspirational goal. The figures cited in our report were based upon non-partisan staff’s fiscal projections of what expenditures are required under the current basic education funding program. We included them in our bipartisan unanimous report to the Supreme Court this summer because the Court required us to quantify what we have done and what we have left to do.
The truth is that, relative to the overall McCleary funding obligation, the 2013 budget advanced our efforts to a modest degree but it did so with an unrepeatable approach that relied on shifting hundreds of millions of dollars from the Public Works Trust Fund and other sections of the capital budget and again suspending the voter-approved state cost of living adjustments to teacher salaries. I expect that very shortly the Supreme Court will once again rake us over the coals for failing to have a long-term sustainable plan to fund basic education.
In short, we have a historic problem to deal with in the next five years and we have yet to negotiate a historic solution, notwithstanding all of the self-congratulatory rhetoric that has permeated the education discussions since the 2013 budget passed after two special sessions and a brush with a state government shutdown, just like in DC.
The suggestion of “not another dime in revenue” for education means we will inevitably struggle to fund critical services involving public safety, higher education and health care in the future. We already have over 27,000 homeless students in our state – far too many – and a student who has to do their homework by the dome light of a car that their family calls home will have great difficulty succeeding in school, no matter what their class size is. Can anyone truly make the case that we don’t need to increase our investments in mental health funding for our overburdened local governments and health care providers? In theory, we could fully fund K-12 by completely divesting our public support for higher education in this state. Is that a real choice? Of course not.
Funding and improving K-12 education by pitting it against public safety, health and higher education is not in line with the values of this state, nor is it a rational public policy choice given the inevitable social and economic costs of those choices.
We will need billions of dollars to meet our education funding needs under the McCleary decision. It cannot be met by hollowing out public safety and our safety net, or by borrowing money from future higher education and infrastructure budgets. We need a historic bipartisan solution and we need to be open to new sources of revenue and budget reforms to find it. Drawing lines in the sand is not helpful. I hope that the Senate majority will adopt a more realistic view of the situation and be open to a legitimate conversation about new revenue for education. They will find an extended hand from me and from other Democrats to solve this challenge together.