Olympia, WA - On this first day of the new legislative session, education is top-of-mind for Washington lawmakers. The state Supreme Court may have complicated their job when it issued a ruling last week that Washington is not doing enough to fund its public schools.
Lawmakers tried in December's special session to remove a deadline they set a few years ago that called for full education funding by 2018 - a deadline they are not sure they can meet now, given the budget crunch. The court says it will be watching.
Catherine Ahl, education chair for the League of Women Voters of Washington, says that could change the tone of the budget debate.
"It's not saying they have to fully fund it this year. It's just, okay, make that start - and keep doing it each year through 2018 - and then you'll be there. This is going to be hanging over all of them."
Gov. Gregoire and some Democrats see the ruling as another reason to call for revenue increases, including a half-cent sales tax hike. Republicans say it signals the need for a full restructuring of the state budget, to ensure that education is the top priority.
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Ahl explains that the Legislature decided exactly what was needed to meet the constitutional requirement for fully funding education. But that was in 1993. "The next step was to set up a new funding structure to fund those reforms. And instead, every two years, we've had a new study - talking about the issue a lot - and more mandates set forth on school districts - yet, the funding has been cut." Ahl says state lawmakers passed an updated bill in 2009, but haven't funded it, either. In the meantime, she says, local tax levies now make up more than 20 percent of many school districts' budgets and are being used for needs like special education and transportation, which are technically the state's responsibility to pay for. The Supreme Court decision can be viewed at www.courts.wa.gov.