This week, there isn’t just one Capital Newsmaker of the Week—it’s the million or so K-12 students who seem to be the biggest winners in budget battles so far: In the past 10 days, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and then the  Majority Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus-controlled senate have rolled out separate budgets that add at least a billion dollars to K-12 each. (I guess you could say the Washington State Supreme Court is this week's winner as well—the legislature seems to have followed their orders; this year's McCleary decision mandated between $1 billion and $1.4 billion in additional K-12 funding as a good faith step toward showing that in the 2015-17 biennium they'll add another $3.3 billion above the baseline and in the 2017-19 biennium they'll add about another $4.5 billion above the baseline.)

Image: Josh Feit
Republican Sen. Andy Hill puts $1 billion toward McCleary

Sen. Andy Hill (R-45, Redmond), the chief budget architect in the senate, says the biggest chunk of money from the senate budget goes to what he calls “books and buses” – or the educational materials and transportation needs of K-12 students, a requirement under the McCleary decision. The majority of the rest, he says, goes to low-income schools. Overall, he says the senate budget puts $1 billion more into education. But Remy Trupin, executive director of the liberal Budget and Policy Center disagrees. He says only approximately $700 million of that counts toward McCleary investments.

“It’s far less than what the task force identified as a down payment and measurable progress toward meeting McCleary. It’s less than what the governor made. And I think it calls into question how we’re going to meet the final full mandate of fully funding basic education,” Trupin says.

And Rich Wood with the Washington Education Association is also skeptical. “It’s actually a net increase of $500 million beyond maintenance level [as opposed the $1 billion claimed by Hill]. That’s after you back out all the cuts they make in things like eliminating the cost of living adjustment for teachers.”

Aside from the math, there are several policy areas that, in conversations with education advocates, came up as the biggest differences between this week's two budget proposals: All-day Kindergarten, reduced class sizes and reforms. Here’s a bit more on each to give you an idea of what’s up for discussion.

All-day Kindergarten

The state has promised that, eventually, all children will have access to all-day Kindergarten. The governor's budget would put $116 million toward that effort – nearly three times as much as the senate’s proposal at $41 million. Both Wood of the WEA and Dave Powell of Stand for Children (the union's opposite number in the education debates who usually side with the Republicans) say they want to see a larger increase than the senate budget proposal.

“We want to see a budget that increases education funding and putting those dollars into programs that we know are effective and that are going to have an immediate impact on student achievement. Under that context and within the focus of responding to McCleary, we’ve been focused on full-day Kindergarten,” Powell says.

Reduced class sizes

The state has made a commitment to reduce class sizes—and the voters have supported it via Initiative 728. But the two proposals differ significantly in this area: Inslee’s puts $127 million toward reducing kindergarten and first grade class sizes in low-income schools. The senate budget does not include money for class size reduction.

“Inslee’s proposal is a start, but we need to reduce class sizes for students at every level,” Wood says. “The senate budget has absolutely no money for it. The state has promised to significantly reduce class size by 2018, and that should be a priority this legislative session.”

Powell disagrees slightly. “Right now, we’re talking about priorities and where we can spend our dollars in a way that will make the largest impact. When you look at the research, class size reductions make a difference in the lower grades … the governor's budget was smart… but I also support the senate’s choice to prioritize other investments.”


Reforms

The Majority Coalition Caucus said earlier this session that increased funding was necessary, but it had to be accompanied by targeted reforms. Powell says the senate budget reflects that, including funding for persistently low achieving schools as well as an “academic acceleration model” to require students to be enrolled in the most advanced class level in certain subjects.

But Wood says the reform argument is off the mark. “The people who make that argument are ignoring the fact that the legislature has passed dozens of education reform bills in the past decade. We’ve dramatically changed teacher evaluations, we have an entirely new standard for basic education,” Wood says. Requiring new reforms tied to an education system that’s just been redefined misses the point, particularly when the real issues—like reducing class size—are apparent.

Other areas

Wood says he’s concerned with an item in the senate budget that reduces the amount local districts can raise toward schools, as well as a requirement that teachers pay $5 more per month for their healthcare. He says that kind of cost-shifting is effectively a tax on teachers.

Wood also mentioned the cost of living adjustments for teachers—voter-approved I-732—which have been put on the back burner year after year and, under both proposals,would remain there. (Inslee’s budget continues suspending that increase; while the senate proposal would repeal it altogether and "re-purpose" to basic education in general. The move would create a $750 million shortfall in the general fund in the next biennium. "We chose education over the rest of government," senate Republican leader Sen. Mark Shcoesler said this week.)

Meanwhile, Powell wants to see funding for a program to align high school graduation requirements with entrance requirements at state colleges. Currently, he says, about half of all high school graduates in the state lack basic requirements to attend college here, which he notes is problematic.

All these factors will only be compounded in the coming days, as the house releases its budget proposal (expected on Wednesday). But sometime in the coming weeks as session winds to a close, there will be clarity—and whatever the final numbers are, the bottom line is that education, in one way or another, will see a marked increase in funding this year, for the first time in many years. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, it will almost certainly mark the start of an upward trend in K-12 spending.

For the session's previous Capitol Newsmakers of the Week start here. Not that we're keeping score, but the tally so far is six Democrats to five Republicans. (We didn't award a Newsmaker of the Week for Week six; Week nine was a tie; and this week didn't go to a D or and R.)