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High hopes for school money from Legislature

More money and better math education top the list of Washington’s legislative educational priorities this session.

Recent lawsuits against the state, poor WASL results last year and Gov. Christine Gregoire’s Washington Learns report calling for major educational overhaul will likely add up to increased spending on education under the Democrat-controlled state government.

Some proposed bills also would increase local spending by changing school levy limits.

Two bills already on the table call for making basic education spending a top priority for the Legislature. Other education bills call for a state report card for education, stabilized distribution to the education legacy trust account, an amendment to the Constitution to allow a simple majority of voters to authorize a school levy, equalized school district salary allocations, increasing the maximum levy percentage for school districts and expanded higher education tuition waivers.

How much the Legislature will spend remains to be seen, as two lawsuits against the state are not yet decided. Gregoire’s proposed budget calls for spending about $15 billion.

“I’m as optimistic as I have been for probably 15 years because the Governor has taken such a strong stand, not only with Washington Learns but with her budget proposals and so on,” said Pat Braman, Mercer Island School Board legislative representative.

The Mercer Island School District is one of several asking for more state money for education. The district is among 12 schools that formed the School Districts Alliance, which sued the state two years ago for inadequately funding special education. More than 70 other school districts have filed briefs in support of the Alliance. The trial was held last fall, with the decision expected within the coming weeks.

Last week another group of schools filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court arguing the state has not fulfilled what the state constitution calls its “paramount duty.” The groups involved in the lawsuit, including the state PTA, League of Women Voters and the Washington Education Association, want the state to decide how much education costs, and then fully fund it.

This latest lawsuit comes after a major failure across the state in math performance last year. Passing the three sections -- reading, writing and math -- of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning was supposed to be a graduation requirement for the class of 2008 and beyond.

But after only half of the class of 2008 passed the math section, lawmakers and state leaders have been befuddled with whether to keep the requirement or postpone it until problems in math education can be resolved.

Gov. Christine Gregoire the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Terry Bergeson, the Washington State School Director’s Association Legislative Assembly and others have both suggested the Legislature delay the requirement until 2011. Gregoire has also proposed spending millions on math and science in the state to begin to remedy math shortcomings.

On Mercer Island, the WASL is not such a huge concern, as the majority of the class of 2008 passed all three sections. With budget cuts in the 2006-2007 school year due to declining district enrollment and more cuts expected as enrollment continues to drop, one of the district’s main concerns when it comes to the Legislature is getting more money.

Highlights of Gregoire’s K-12 budget:

Gregoire calls for spending $809 million on school construction, the largest construction budget in state history, for improved classroom space, new and better regional skill centers and a youth academy for at-risk teens.

Her math and science initiative would reduce class size to 25 students per teacher and recruit 750 additional math and science teachers with $107.4 million from the state general fund and $46.8 million from the Education Legacy Trust Account.

She calls for expanded hands-on science learning, expanding the Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform program into 1,000 additional classrooms with $12.1 million of state general fund money.

Her budget calls for reduced class sizes with $450 per student funding for Initiative 728 with $129 million form the Student Achievement Fund.

She calls for expanded all-day kindergarten using $41.6 million from the state general fund.

She would spend $63.4 million of state general fund money adding opportunities for students with special needs.

Her budget would reward outstanding teachers with a performance-based educator salary system and raise teacher pay while providing more equity across school districts using $417 million of state general fund money.

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