The 2012 legislative session has begun and my colleagues and I were welcomed back to Olympia by the news of the Washington Supreme Court upholding the King County Superior Court ruling that Washington is not sufficiently funding public education. The news of this ruling sends a clear message to lawmakers that we as a legislature must address funding for public education. Yet it comes at a time when the options for balancing the 2011-13 biennial budget include severe cuts to our education system.
First let me say that I could not agree more that the funding of education must be a top priority for the state. A good education is vital — not only for the children of Washington but for the future of the state. What kind of Washington will we have if the boys and girls who will be the workers, leaders and decision makers of the future are not receiving the lessons they need in the classroom? At a public forum held at Jason Lee Middle School this fall, fellow lawmakers and I heard testimony from education advocates calling the public education system in our state the third leg of the stool. Without it, how can our state stand?
As we move forward, we must ask: what is this definition of basic education that we are missing and what areas does it cover? Basic education is defined as goals that the Legislature has set as necessary for each student to have an opportunity to develop knowledge and skills to be responsible members of our society. It is an evolving program of instruction which must provide these educational opportunities to ALL children including those with more specialized needs as well as those in detention facilities. The funding formulas necessary to provide those educational programs are also defined as basic education. It is also worth noting that I-728, regarding the Student Achievement Fund, and I-732, regarding cost-of-living adjustments for teachers, are not considered part of basic education.
While the courts have been considering this case, the Legislature has passed bills that seek to improve the state’s education system. In 2009, the passage of House Bill 2261 enhanced the definition of basic education and created a new funding formula which took effect last year. In 2010, the Legislature continued the reform effort with the passage of House Bill 2776, which set a 2018 goal of reducing kindergarten through third-grade class size and set minimum funding values in numerous areas. In its decision, the court called the passage of those reform efforts promising but also made it clear that having a new funding formula without the actual funding necessary to support the reforms does not meet the state’s constitutional obligation. In short, the court likes the destination but questions the road being travelled to get there. It is our duty to find that funding to ensure that we meet our responsibilities, not just to the constitution, but to the children of our great state.
In her State of the State address, Gov. Gregoire continued her call for a temporary half-cent sales tax increase to provide the revenue to avoid the shredding of our education system and the loss of “our future, our values and our way.” While the governor and I know a sales tax increase is regressive, I must agree with her that it would be even more regressive to further cut the education system that is critical for the future of our state. The passage of the first sales tax increase in more than a quarter century would bring the state $411 million for K-12 and higher education. In the end, such an investment is not regressive; it is a first step forward toward meeting our constitutional obligation and responsibility.
As we face the challenge of balancing the state budget, many could view the Supreme Court’s decision as yet another blow. I see it as an opportunity. This says to both lawmakers and citizens that the state must do more. The conversation on how to do that must start this session. We have received the blow, now let us shake it off and continue the fight — fight we must and can win for the good of our children and the future of our state.
Sen. Debbie Regala
27th Legislative District