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Education and Training
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Schools, Not Pot, Are Priority As Washington Legislature Reconvenes

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Austin Jenkins
/
Northwest News Network
A panel of Washington lawmakers who are members of Governor Jay Inslee's workgroup on education funding participate in a legislative preview forum in Olympia hosted by the Associated Press.

Washington lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for a short election-year session. They say getting bipartisan agreement on a school funding plan is a top priority.

The deadline for state lawmakers to fully fund public schools and take the pressure off local levies is just two years away. Their failure to come up with a plan to accomplish that goal has resulted in a $100,000-per-day Supreme Court sanction.

Republican state Senator Ann Rivers said if last legislative session was about marijuana, this year is about education.

“And it has reached a fever pitch,” Rivers said. “It’s top of mind for all of the legislature.”

‘An absolutely split legislative body’

Rivers has been part of a bipartisan, bicameral group that’s been meeting all fall at the behest of Democratic Governor Jay Inslee. They’ve been trying to come up with a plan that can pass a divided legislature. A plan that commits the legislature to end the reliance on local school levies to fund public schools by the 2017/18 school year.

Democratic state Senator Christine Rolfes said it hasn’t been easy -- especially in a legislature where Democrats control one chamber and Republicans the other.

“We are an absolutely split legislative body right now,” Rolfes said. “So what we put forward has to necessarily reflect conservative values as well as progressive values. And it’s very, very difficult to move something forward that’s this big.”

Translation: don’t expect a big, comprehensive plan this year. In fact, don’t even expect a plan that will get the Washington legislature out of contempt of court.

“You know our goal wasn’t necessarily to satisfy the court, our goal was to figure out a pathway forward to solving the problem,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Democrat, said.

The most complicated issue

That means the big, thorny questions will wait until next year. Questions like: where will the money come from? Should there be a levy swap? Should teachers have to bargain at a statewide level instead of locally?

Sullivan acknowledges time is running short.

“And it is taking more time than I would like and I think probably any of us would like,” he said. “But the fact is that there is more work that needs to be done.”

In recent years, the legislature has pumped an additional $2.3 billion into public schools to address transportation and operating costs, expand full day kindergarten and reduce K-3 class sizes. But lawmakers have left the most complicated issue for last: how to shift the burden of compensating teachers and staff from local levies back onto the state.

The cost to do this has been pegged at $3 to $4 billion more per two-year budget cycle. Republican state Representative Chad Magendanz is also part of the group that’s been meeting to hash this stuff out. He said what happens this legislative session will set the course for a heavy lift next year.

“2017 is going to be a tough year for us as we negotiate every element of needs to be part of this plan to fund the commitment that we’re stating in this legislation during the 2016 legislative session,” Magendanz said.

Also on the agenda as Washington lawmakers reconvene: what to do about charter schools now that the Supreme Court has ruled them unconstitutional, an update to the state’s two-year budget and hearings on the Department of Correction’s accidental early release of more than three-thousand inmates.

The session is scheduled to adjourn March 10.

The lawmakers all spoke at a legislative preview hosted by the Associated Press.