A local legislator told a packed town hall meeting Monday night in Puyallup that the state Senate’s proposed budget is the best it’s been for schools in the last 30 years.
But many teachers in the crowd of about 150 people were skeptical, as the Legislature continues its second special session this week.
State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, called the public forum while he’s in the thick of negotiations on education funding. The Puyallup Republican said the Senate and House budgets on education are drawing closer, but lawmakers remain divided on other budget issues.
Many local teachers unions — including the Puyallup Education Association on Wednesday (June 3) — are staging one-day strikes this spring to send a message to lawmakers about teacher anger.
To teachers, the issues are clear. They want the state to fully fund basic education, as it has been ordered to do by the state Supreme Court. After six years with no cost-of-living adjustment to salaries, they want fair compensation, and they seek relief from skyrocketing health care premiums. They object to their job evaluations being tied to student test scores — a measure demanded by federal officials.
The teachers also want full funding that would fulfill the voter-approved initiative that calls for lower class sizes at all grade levels. And while negotiations drag on, funding for teacher raises remains unsettled.
Dammeier said lawmakers must, by court order, end over-reliance on local levy dollars to pay teachers. That system means teacher pay varies from district to district. He said the goal is to eliminate disparities that have grown over the past three decades.
“We want a system that is fair and equitable to taxpayers and to students statewide,” Dammeier said.
Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate are proposing class-size reductions in this budget round, but only in kindergarten through grade three. Dammeier said lowering class size just in the primary grades will require an additional 7,000 teachers statewide. And he points out that the state currently produces only about half that many teachers each year.
But teachers in the audience said Washington will be able to attract educators from out of state, especially if pay and working conditions improve.
Pam Kruse, president of the Franklin Pierce Education Association, pointed out that voters approved the class-size initiative.
“It’s now the legislators’ job to fully fund it,” she said.
Teachers in the audience spoke of classes with as many as 49 students, and some feared that if the primary grade class reductions are funded, their upper-grade level classes will grow even larger.
Dammeier said legislators are grappling with the issue. But he said even if the money were available to fund reductions across the board, there aren’t enough classrooms to hold all the new classes that would be created.
“My goal is ‘Let’s do K-3 right,’ ” he said. “I know that’s not what you want to hear.”
Several teachers said that if money is short, lawmakers should find new sources of revenue. One audience member asked if they could organize a ballot initiative to raise taxes targeted for education. Dammeier said they could try and “see how the public reacts.”
He said he voted for the bill tying evaluations to test scores because failure to do so removed some $40 million in federal funding for Washington schools this year. He said the evaluation bill calls for a three-year delay in implementing it, and he said that state education officials would have to certify that any method used is valid.
“I hope that thing goes away,” he said of the federal requirement. “I want the federal law to get fixed.”