Olympia lawmakers debate what approach is best to fund schools

A showdown on the House floor Friday (Feb. 1) over an amendment offered by Republicans to operating rules for the House of Representatives, which would create a separate budget for K-12 education funding, provoked Enumclaw Rep. Cathy Dahlquist (R-31st District, Enumclaw) to ask, “Where has the majority party been the last 10 years?”

Democrats, who are in the majority, rejected the Republican proposal to House Resolution 4608 in a 52-41 roll-call party-line vote.

The proposal, known as “Fund Education First,” would have required a separate budget to be formed for public education and would require it to be funded before all other budgets.  Education funding is now part of the general state operating budget.

The Republicans first introduced this legislation in 2006 and have done so each session year.

Placing blame on Democrats for being inactive on the public education financing front, Dahlquist charged, “We would not be asking for this amendment today if the majority party (members) had done what they were supposed to do and upheld their paramount duty to fund education first.”

While Republicans urged their counterparts to pass the amendment, Democrats refused, using the argument that funding education separately would fail to address the multiple financing and operational shortfalls present in Washington’s education system.

Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48th District, Medina) said that the proposal before the House doesn’t actually address the Supreme Court’s McCleary Decision, citing the disproportionate amount of times the ruling mentions the word “funding” versus the word “first;” 233 times to 13 times, respectively.

Article 9, Section 1 of the state constitution declares “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders ….”

In the Jan. 2012 McCleary v. State decision, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously declared that the Legislature must meet its 2018 funding mandate outlined in Engrossed Substitute House Bill (ESHB) 2261 that was passed in 2010 and signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Funding measures include the state allocating more than $9,000 per student per year, paying 95 percent of pupil transportation costs, reducing class sizes, funding full-day kindergarten and providing monies for supplies, maintenance and operating costs.

Over $10,000 is being spent now on each student annually by a combination of state and federal funding.

However, Hunter stated that the Republican proposal is nothing but superficial compliance. “It’s a waste of time and will distract the public,” he said.

Rep. Gary Alexander (R-2nd District, Olympia) maintained that “Fund Education First” is more than a Republican slogan.

“It’s not going to delay the process,” he said. “We’ve already demonstrated we can do this in a very responsible way and in a very timely way.”

But Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3rd District, Spokane) says he’d rather fund education right, than first. He stated that for some Washington students and families, realities of hunger, lack of shelter and poor health can take precedence over concerns for education.

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