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State lawmakers start work on school funding report

Washington lawmakers feel they did a better job at funding public schools this year.

Now they hope it’s enough to appease a state Supreme Court that last year ordered them to pay the full costs of a basic education promised to students by 2018.

On Wednesday, July 31, a panel of Republican and Democratic lawmakers began crafting a report for justices on steps taken in the legislative session to comply with the court’s directive handed down in the lawsuit known as the McCleary case.

The report is due Aug. 29, after which the coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups that sued the state will get a month to respond. Then the justices will consider both filings and weigh in.

Lawmakers grappled on Wednesday with what they should and should not emphasize to show they’ve made steady progress as demanded by the court.

They intend to highlight the $982 million in additional funding provided for basic education programs in the 2013-15 state budget.

That total includes $374 million for materials and supplies, and $131.6 million for student transportation. There’s also $103.6 million to reduce the size of kindergarten and first-grade classes in schools with large percentages of students of poor families; $90 million to double the percentage of students enrolled in all-day kindergarten; and $97 million for adding hours of additional instruction for grades seven through 12.

Also to be spotlighted is $48 million for such things as training and evaluating teachers, and aiding schools with large numbers of students who fare poorly on tests of basic skills.

Democratic members also want to make sure that justices know the Legislature took money out of public schools by not providing teachers with a cost-of-living adjustment in wages, as sought by Initiative 732.

They said not paying the COLA amounted to a cut in education spending, reviving a partisan argument voiced often during the protracted legislative session.

“I absolutely think we don’t hide this COLA suspension in the closet,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. “I’d rather be honest and transparent about the salary issue.”

Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said it would be “really misleading” to say the Legislature put $1 billion more into basic education without subtracting the $295 million for the COLA that was cut.

Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, one of the panel’s two chairmen, objected to the Democrats’ request. He said the Legislature had suspended those increases in previous budgets so their action amounted to a continuation of that policy and not a cut.

Meanwhile, Alexander said education reforms adopted by the Legislature should be emphasized as much as the dollars, because the court wants to see what the state is doing to improve the academic achievement of students.

But Democrats pushed back.

Pedersen said it was “certainly not my understanding or reading of McCleary” decision to give extra attention to those policies.

This will be the Legislature’s second report to the Supreme Court. Justices criticized the first one submitted in September 2012, saying that it failed to demonstrate steady progress in meeting the goals set out in the decision.

The committee writing the report is made up of eight people. It is divided evenly among Democrats and Republicans in each chamber with each caucus providing two members.

No Senate Republicans or members of the Majority Coalition Caucus attended Wednesday’s meeting.

The committee is scheduled to meet again on Aug. 20.

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