When lawmakers convene Jan. 14 in Olympia for a scheduled 105-day legislative session, the eyes of the state Supreme Court will be focused on how the Legislature will respond to its mandate to fully fund a 21st-century public education system. On Jan. 5, 2012, the court ruled in McCleary v. State of Washington that lawmakers have failed to meet the state’s constitutional and paramount duty to “amply provide for the education of all Washington children as the state’s first and highest priority before any other state programs or operations.”
The Legislature’s response during the 2012 session was to create a Joint Task Force on Education Funding. The 11-member group was charged with drafting a K-12 education funding plan by Dec. 31, 2012 that meets the court mandates and requirements of House Bill 2261 and House Bill 2776 – education reform measures that created the framework for full funding. It soon became clear that many on the task force were focused on raising taxes. Despite governor elect Jay Inslee’s opposition to tax increases during the campaign, the majority forwarded a list of tax increases to the Legislature at the task force’s final meeting Dec. 17 and approved an education spending plan that included items outside of the House bills.
Three days later, the state Supreme Court said the Legislature still isn’t making enough progress. The court recognized that slowing funding cuts and increasing taxes is not the answer to the McCleary mandate. That is why the two House Republican members on the task force voted against the majority report and offered an alternative plan that I believe is a much better solution: fund education first!
K-12 education is funded in the state’s operating budget and must compete for appropriations in that same budget from other state operations, such as corrections, higher education, social services, health care, natural resources and general government. Many years ago, the state separated transportation into its own budget and provided a dedicated funding source (primarily the state gasoline tax) so that it would not have to compete politically with the same funds for other programs, such as education. The state also has a separate capital budget to pay for construction and repair of state office buildings, colleges and universities, prisons, parks, public school buildings, low-income housing, and other capital facility programs. Yet education, named in the state constitution as Washington’s “paramount duty,” must fight for dollars against other state expenses in the operating budget.
In the past decade, K-12 education funding has diminished from 50 percent of the operating budget to 44 percent. That means 56 percent is allocated first to other state programs. Budget writers have done this to make the case that the state is short of money and cannot adequately fund education without tax increases — even though the state continues to take in billions of dollars more in revenue each new budget cycle.
“Fund Education First” is a concept I proposed several years ago. It prioritizes funding by using the FIRST dollars of the state operating budget for K-12 education. It then funds K-12 education in a separate budget before other appropriations are made, ensuring that education is “the state’s first and highest priority before any other state programs or operations” as mandated by the state Supreme Court.
The Fund Education First plan offered to the task force by our House Republican members would also meet the court mandates and requirements of the House bills. Our plan, which will be offered as legislation in the coming session, would also fully fund all-day kindergarten and one-half of K-3 class-size enhancements in the 2013-15 budget. Additionally, we would increase education funding up to 51 percent of the operating budget by the 2015-17 biennium.
This plan would finally end the funding battle that pits agencies like Puget Sound Partnership and Ecology against our kids. It would allow us to prioritize the remainder of the budget within current revenues.
With more than $34 billion in the state operating budget, we don’t need economy-stifling tax increases to pay for education. We simply need to prioritize. The best way to meet the state’s paramount duty and fulfill the state Supreme Court mandate is to fund education first.
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/dan-kristiansen.