Opinion

GUEST OPINION | Education: Our state’s paramount duty

Several people have asked me why I and my fellow House Republicans recently swam against the tide and voted against a $360 million budget reduction bill. The answer is "education."

With four months remaining in the state's 2009-2011 fiscal cycle, House Bill 1086 was put forward to help close a $600 million shortfall in the current budget which runs through June 30.

Twice the bill was brought to a vote in the House: on Jan. 24 and again, Feb. 18. It not only contained deep cuts to class-size reduction funding for kindergarten through 4th grade (K-4), but also cut retroactively, going back to September when additional teachers were hired.

Most disturbing is that it made these cuts to education to preserve funding for the General Assistance Unemployable (GAU) program.

What is GAU?

It's a program that provides cash grants and medical benefits to adults without dependents and unable to work due to a physical or mental incapacity.  According to a Washington State Institute for Public Policy study, "Most GAU recipients are unmarried white males, age 30 to 55, with a physical disability. Additionally, over half of GAU clients have mental illness and/or substance abuse problems." Only 18 other states provide similar assistance, but Washington provides a "higher-than-average cash grant." Most GAU recipients also qualify for federal assistance, including Social Security benefits.

Article IX, Section 1 of the Washington State Constitution says, "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."

Nowhere in the constitution does it say our paramount duty is to give cash grants to substance abusers. Education is our state's paramount duty!

My House Republican colleagues and I supported an amendment that would have protected K-4 funding while eliminating GAU funding. Unfortunately, the majority party rejected this amendment. Soon local school districts will be scrambling to make up this money because the rug has been pulled out from under them to protect cash grants for substance abusers.

If this is the route the Legislature is taking on the current year's $600 million shortfall, which direction will it go when we begin writing the 2011-2013 biennial budget, which is now projected to be nearly $6 billion in the red?

Budgeting is about setting priorities. Our top House Republican priority in the budget is education.

It's not just our top priority because of its listing in the state constitution. We know that education is the foundation of our economy, society and democracy. It is the key to our prosperity as a state and nation.

That's why House Republicans have proposed "Fund Education First" – House Bill 1415 and House Joint Resolution 4210. We believe Washington's budget writers should fund education first before any other state program.

It's also why we successfully fought on the House floor in 2009 to stop House Bill 1776, which would have cut levy equalization by $60 million. Levy equalization is a promise the Legislature made to schools statewide to ensure that areas with lower property values, state-owned lands and other issues that limit the local tax base, get an equal share of state funds. We want to make sure children in Arlington, Marysville and Darrington have the same educational opportunity as those students in the richer tax-base of Bellevue. We will continue fighting to protect this funding.

We also believe the state should fund the basics before new unfunded mandates are passed down to school districts. We also think local school districts and parents know what's best for children – not the state. That's why we've introduced House Bill 1414 to allow school districts to opt-out of certain unfunded state mandates, and House Bill 1025 which includes 21 examples of school obligations that could be eliminated, softened or suspended.

Back to the budget. Difficult decisions will be required to close such an enormous fiscal hole. In the first budget votes we took, when faced between giving cash to drug- and alcohol-addicted people – or giving our youngest students a better education, House Republicans stood up for kids. We will continue to do that throughout the duration of this legislative session, because providing for the education of our children is not only our state's paramount duty, it is the right thing to do.

Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, serves as chairman of the Washington House Republican Caucus and represents the 39th Legislative District. He can be contacted at 360-786-7967 or e-mail him through his website at www.houserepublicans.wa.gov/Kristiansen. His office address is P.O. Box 40600, Olympia, WA 98504-0600.

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