The state house Republicans got their chance to roll out their defining mantra on the Democratically-controlled floor late last week when Rep Cathy Dalhquist (R-31, Enumclaw) tried to pass an amendment to the rules that would have required the house to pass a separate K-12 education budget before passing the general fund budget. Traditionally, education funding is on the table with all the other discretionary budgeting battles. The amendment lost 52-41 along straight party lines.

The Republicans’ big play was a response to the Washington State Supreme Court’s McCleary decision which requires the state to fully fund K-12 education. The Court declared last January that the state had neglected its "paramount" duty to fund basic education. Using a pair of education reform bills the legislature passed in 2009 and 2010 that defined basic education, number crunchers on legislative staff say the state needs to find between $1 billion and $1.6 billion more in funding over the 2013-2015 fiscal period; that’s on top of the $6.5 billion a year the state already spends on K-12 education.

Their plan did not—which is evidently the beauty of it on paper—say where they would cut.

To guarantee that the state meets the McCleary mandate, the Republicans want to create a separate education budget to be fully funded before tax revenues are appropriated elsewhere. Their plan, they say, is to incrementally raise the percentage of the budget that goes toward basic education each biennium. Currently, K-12 education receives 44 percent of the state-operating budget. Under the GOP's "Fund Education First" plan, the budget allocation for basic education would increase to 51 percent by 2017-2019. Their plan did not—which is evidently the beauty of it on paper—say where they would cut.

Education groups aren’t quite on board with the catchy proposal. Both the reformers and unions (typically at odds over education issues) have expressed concern over how a separate education budget would affect social services, which they believe, should be connected to education funding. Frank Ordway, Director of Government Relations at the League of Education Voters, the leading reform group in the state, explains: "When you fund education first, the suspicion is that you throw as much money into it, to gut out social services.” Although the League has been Republican-friendly in the past, Ordway maintains that the League “isn’t yet in the coalition of groups supporting the GOP’s “Fund Education First” rallying cry.

Echoing Ordway’s concern, Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, insists supporters of the amendment "need to talk to educators, legislators, and families about how to keep our kids healthy and safe. A full education is much more than just funding K-12."

The Republicans have the opposite view, insisting that education must be protected above all else from the inevitable funding cuts it would take by putting it in the give-and-take over the $11.25 billion in discretionary money with everything else that’s on the table. Locking-in the basic education budget, they say, would protect eduation dollars in revenue-strapped times.

The Republicans got to make their case in the dramatic floor hearing last week. Rep. Drew MacEwen (R-35, Union) said, “We all know the path out of poverty is through a quality education… Let us say to the children of Washington state that we as a house we will stop holding your education funding hostage to other political means. We do care.”

And Rep. Gary Alexander (R-2, Olympia), the Republicans’ budgeting lead, was the Republicans' best speaker. He critiqued recent education funding policy saying, “We passed two major policy bills dealing with how we should fund education ... without putting the resources there to support it. That to me is a major violation of rules. For us to adopt this rule here this morning, that would never have to occur again we would basically put the money behind our policy for education."

The Democrats, who eventually voted down the idea, got to make speeches as well. Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane) argued that the state needs to maintain a holistic approach to education and protect money for public services. He insisted that instead of funding education first, it is more important “that we fund education right.”

He added, with a catchy sound bite: “As we know, separate is not equal.” Ormsby argued that the Republican idea to do a K-12 budget first would create “winners and losers,” because it diverts funds from other social services, and those cuts fall disproportionately on low-income earners.

Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D-41, Renton), the best speaker on the Democratic side, put some specifics on the Democratic POV:

So many of my students need much more when they arrive to our school doors. They need services and support. Their families need to have a home a warm place to live. They need a place to do their homework, be safe. The students need to be nourished. The students need our support to be healthy and to be successful in school. That’s how we use our education dollars both efficiency and effectively. That’s how we fund education opportunity and success for all of our students. And for that reason, Mr. Speaker, with all of the commitment I have everyday here for education funding, I oppose this amendment.

 

In addition to giving speeches and voting down the GOP idea, the house Democrats, who say they are looking for revenues, but haven’t put forward any unified plan yet, have floated some initial ideas. For example,  a bill sponsored by liberal Rep. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), which was referred to the Finance Committee on January 30, calls for a two percent tax on millionaires to fund the basic education and specifically reduce class sizes for grades K-4.

Over on the senate side, where the Democrats are in the minority, Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill), the Democrats’ leader, is proposing another Robin Hood idea—a five percent tax on capital gains in effort to raise $600-$700 million each year for basic education and higher education. The five percent capital gains tax, which new Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee opposes, would affect three percent of the population. Murray’s proposal would be pitched as a referendum, but is unlikely to go anywhere given the Republican advantage. For their part, the Republicans have not taken up their house cohorts’ proposal to fund education first, nor have they offered any concrete K-12 funding plans. The Republican chair of the K-12 Committee, Sen. Steve Litzow (R-41, Mercer Island), is currently focusing on several reform bills. (And Niki interviewed Litzow earlier in the session about his reform ideas.)

"You simply can't fund education in isolation."

Probably the best example of why education needs to be considered in the context of other discretionary spending is another important budget item, which has also been hit in recent years, higher education. Since the 2007-2009 spending period, higher education has suffer a funding decrease of 25.5 percent. This represents a reduction of $939 million to higher education, according to a 2012 report by the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board. The whole point of funding K-12, at least judging from the rhetoric in Olympia, is to train kids for the 21st Century economy; a key piece of that, obviously, is higher ed.

Bobbi Cussins, public information officer for the House Republican Caucus, says the GOP plan doesn’t account for higher education. (To the Republicans’ credit, it would have been a little hypocritical to make a subjective choice to include higher ed funding in their McCleary plan, while simultaneously saying other discretionary funding choices couldn’t be included.)

But again, that dynamic makes the Democrats’ case stronger. According to a report by the Washington Budget and Policy Center, higher education will actually suffer deeper cuts as a result of the bill. In the fiscal period of 2013-2015 alone, state colleges and universities would suffer $1 billion in cuts, while another $660 million would be cut from student financial aid (among cuts to other education related services). "Fund Education First’ would be detrimental to the budget," says Tara Lee, communications director for the Washington Budget and Policy Center. "You simply can't fund education in isolation."