Lawmakers may add year to education reform payments

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Some Washington state lawmakers said Wednesday they wonder if they may be able to take an extra year to phase in billions more dollars for education funding reform, as ordered by the state Supreme Court.

The court ruled in January 2012 in the school funding lawsuit that the state isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic public education and gave the Legislature until 2018 to fix the way the state pays for basic K-12 education.

In the ruling, known as the McCleary decision, the Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to make yearly progress reports on their efforts. The second report is due Aug. 29. Those reports are then critiqued by the group that brought the lawsuit, and the Supreme Court. Last year's report got poor marks from both.

At a meeting in Olympia on Wednesday to discuss the Aug. 29 report, lawmakers got into a side discussion about what the court meant by its 2018 deadline.

Does it mean Jan. 1, 2018? Does it mean fiscal year 2018, which begins July 2017? Or does it mean the 2018-2019 school year, which begins in Sept. 2018.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Dave Stolier said the court has not been clear on what the deadline means. He noted that the ruling mentions several pieces of education reform legislation that was equally vague about the deadlines the Legislature set for itself.

"There's some room for interpretation," Stolier said.

The lawmakers meeting as the Joint Select Committee on Article IX Litigation had several other areas for which they would like clarification from the court. Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, suggested the progress report to the court could include a list of requests for clarification.

Stolier, who represents the Legislature to the Supreme Court, said he thought that idea was worth considering.

Another area lawmakers expressed desire for clarification was around the court's wording on how fast they need to ramp up the dollars for education.

The 2013 Legislature allocated about $1 billion more for basic education for the next two years. Lawmakers and state staff have estimated they need to find a total of between $3.5 billion and $4.5 billion total additional to fully pay for basic education. Depending on the math formula, they may be right on target to meet their 2018 goals or they may be a little behind.

The court said in one of its recent memos to the Legislature that it needed to show real and measurable progress. Another memo said the Legislature needed to show steady progress. And still another said significant progress.

"Those are all very variable terms. Hopefully we can arrive at some consensus," said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia.

The bulk of this year's report to the Supreme Court will focus on how the Legislature invested that $1 billion in education, to help struggling students, to pay for their transportation, to buy classroom supplies, to add 80 hours to the high school year, to reduce class sizes in the younger grades, and to get more kids into all-day kindergarten.

Lawmakers in both parties say they think they did a pretty good job making a down payment toward the McCleary decision.

The people who sued the state over money for schools - a coalition of parents, school districts, teachers and community groups - say the state is still far away from the levels of K-12 funding it promised to Washington's one million students.