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Action on education - Weinstein sets legislation to update fund formulas, sex ed.

By Mary L. Grady

Newly elected state Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, pledged to make education one of his top priorities this session. And, as vice-chair of the Senate Early Learning, K-12 & Higher Education Committee, he has.

Since the session began on Jan. 10, the Island attorney has taken the lead on a number of education bills.

Weinstein introduced legislation on Jan. 20 calling for a comprehensive study on education funding in Washington state. If passed, Senate Bill 5191 would fund a study to determine how well Washington's current school funding system serves K-12 public school students.

The last time the Legislature looked at school funding was 1977.

``A lot has changed since 1977,'' Weinstein said. ``We need to know if the way we fund our public schools is supporting student learning today.

``Students in 2005 come to school with special learning needs,'' Weinstein explained. ``Combine that with our state's high academic standards, and the demands of the 21st century work place, and it's clear we need to reevaluate how we spend public education dollars.''

The legislation calls for the finance study to be completed by December 2005. An executive committee would oversee the study and select a consultant to conduct it. The committee would include four lawmakers: one House Democrat, one Senate Democrat, one Senate Republican and one House Republican, the governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

``It seems that there is finally a convergence of action about state school funding,'' commented Mercer Island School District Superintendent Cyndy Simms.

``Everyone is focussed on school funding now,'' Simms said, adding that at least two other studies are in progress by statewide education associations. ``The Legislature feels the need to do this; there is pressure from everywhere.''

Studying education funding sounds simple enough, but that will not be the case in this state.

Adding a twist is the special education lawsuit sponsored by at least 10 state school districts, including Mercer Island. The purpose of that lawsuit is to determine if the state is meeting its constitutional obligations to fund special education and have the courts direct actions of the Legislature.

By selecting special education as the centerpiece of the lawsuit, the school districts hope to open up a discussion on the spectrum of issues concerning school funding adequacy -- from transportation to early childhood services.

A bill was sponsored last year to study school monies, but did not get out of committee in the Senate. Weinstein and others have said that the education study was killed last year as some feared it might be used as ``Exhibit A'' in the special education lawsuit.

``It would be better that we (the Legislature) as a policy group rather than the courts decide how funding should work,'' he said.

``The House did a study anyway,'' Weinstein explained, ``But it was limited. It evaluated levies and the distribution of funds rather than adequacy.''

SB 5191 does include looking at constitutional requirements concerning the Legislature's responsibility to provide for public education. The study will ascertain whether the state is living up to its duty, in light of educational reform, and emphasis on testing and higher expectations for students.

The study will not address early childhood services.

``K-12 should be separated out at this point,'' Weinstein said. ``The constitutional obligation is more specific there.''

Along with studies done by other groups and legal wrangling, another issue that may complicate the bill is that the governor has also proposed a school funding study.

It is likely that the two studies would be combined or a compromise will be made, Weinstein said. But a key difference is the study proposed by Weinstein is to be complete by year end. No end date is specified in the governors proposal.

The ambitious study described in SB 5191 would include a review of the legal requirements and the effects of education reform such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The study will also include an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the current funding formulas, look at school funding of other states and propose changes to current funding. Another piece is to provide more evidence on the effect of funding on student achievement.

The study is expected to cost $700,000.

Despite the huge deficit faced by the state, Weinstein is not concerned about the cost of a consultant and study.

``We ask so much academically from our students today,'' Weinstein said. ``We owe it to them to use public education money efficiently to deliver them the best education possible.''

Beginning in 2008, students must demonstrate proficiency in reading, math and writing to graduate from high school as measured by the 10th grade WASL. Students in the class of 2010, must also pass a science test.

The bill has the support of Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson, as well as education groups including the Washington Education Association, Washington State PTA and the Washington State School Directors Association.

``I am so proud our new senator has taken the lead on the school finance study,'' said Simms. ``It is long overdue.''

Weinstein is also the co-sponsor of another bill to allow local school levies to be decided by simple majority votes. At present most school levies can only be passed by what is termed a supermajority, or 60 percent voter approval.

He also introduced Senate Bill 5306 that would require school districts to present medically correct information as part of sexual education taught in schools.

The impetus for that bill came from Mercer Island and Issaquah high school students, who told him they felt that children should be taught factually correct information at school, he said.

``In this age of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, we owe it to students to arm them with honest and accurate sexual education information. We can't shy away from the fact that good information -- including an emphasis on abstinence -- is the best way to help teenagers to protect themselves.''

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