Legislators hear about the scale of the school-funding challenge

Members of the House Appropriations Committee hear figures that reach past $3 billion in new money for the upcoming biennium and move toward $5 billion in just two more years.

It appears that the Washington Legislature will need to find an additional $3.28 billion to achieve the education improvements that are required for the 2015-2017 budget biennium.

The House Appropriations Committee's staff briefed that committee Wednesday on the raw numbers the Legislature will face in its 2015 session to comply with both the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling — "the McCleary decision" — and the passage of Initiative 1531. Together, the pair of issues calls for drastic shrinking of the teacher-to-student ratios in Grades K-12.

The Legislature has until the end of the regular session — April 27, 2015 — to provide a catch-up plan meet the state's McCleary obligations, the staff told the appropriations committee. Currently, the Legislature has underfunded those requirements. If no McCleary catch-up plan is ready by April 27, the Legislature will have to ask the Supreme Court for permission to continue working on that topic in a special session. It will be up to the court whether to grant that permission.

By comparison, the Legislature took two special sessions to agree on a $1.04 billion McCleary appropriation in late June 2013 for the 2013-2015 budget biennium. And that was roughly $500 million less than what was needed to keep the McCleary work on schedule. Consequently, the Supreme Court told the Legislature that it could face sanctions unless a legally sufficient catch-up plan was submitted by the end of the 2015 session. It is unknown what those sanctions could be, but justices hinted that they might nullify part of the 2015-2017 budget or eliminate all 650 state tax breaks with the Legislature forces to reinstate them one-by-one after the McCleary work is adequately funded.

The state needs to dig up an extra roughly $4.5 billion in ongoing appropriations from 2013 to mid-2019 to meet the McCleary obligations. So far, the Legislature appropriated $1.04 billion for 2013-2015. The budget calculations call for another $1.24 billion for 2015-2017, plus an extra $2.25 billion for 2017-2019.

The Legislature doesn't know where the $1.24 billion or the $2.25 billion will come from. Those questions plus the underfunding for 2013-2015 are why the Supreme Court is threatening sanctions.

The bulk of the McCleary money is to improve the student-teacher ratios in Grade K-3, which the Legislature did not seriously address in its 2013 and 2014 sessions. The current K-3 ratio is one teacher per 25.3 students (in a non-poverty school). In its 2012 McCleary ruling, the Supreme Court ordered Washington to comply with the one-teacher-per-17 students goal set by a 2009 state law. Complying with that lowered ratio would mean hiring many more teachers, and building additional classrooms by the 2018-2019 school year.

Meanwhile, the passage of I-1531 by voters this month calls for reducing the student-teacher ratios in Grades 4-12. The target ratios range from 22 to 25 students per teacher. Plus, thousands of extra support staff members will be needed. The numbers stemming from I-1531 are 7,453 new teachers, 10,674 more school staff members and 7,434 new district staff members. Staffing in some small schools is supposed to shrink, resulting in a final target of 25,324 new school employees to be hired from 2015 through 2019.
In dollars, that translates to an extra $2.04 billion in 2015-2017 and an extra $2.66 billion in 2017-2019. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said these amounts are the state's shares of the obligations and that local school districts will have to add some of their own money as well.

If you crunch the I-1531 and McCleary obligations together for each of two bienniums, that means the Legislature has to drum up an extra $3.28 billion in 2015-2017 and an additional $4.9 billion for 2017-2019. For comparison, the state operating budget for 2013-2015 is roughly $33.86 billion, which includes the $1.04 billion for that biennium's McCleary work.

And that does not include another $250 million to $300 million for voter mandated teacher cost-of-living raises — a budget item under an earlier voter-approved initiative that the Legislature has suspended for several years.

Budget cuts, program reforms, tax reforms, closing tax breaks and revenue shifts have all been suggested as ways to meet the I-1531 and the McCleary obligations. The bottom line is that no obvious paths — politically agreeable to Republicans and Democrats — have been identified for tackling McCleary and I-1531 in the 2015 session. Hunter said: "We're high-centered right now."