Politics & Government

Negotiations, hearings ahead on school funding as McCleary fines pile up

The Chimacum School District near Port Townsend was part of a group that sued the state over school funding in the McCleary case.
The Chimacum School District near Port Townsend was part of a group that sued the state over school funding in the McCleary case. The News Tribune

Court fines that will reach $3 million by Friday haven’t been enough to force the Legislature into a special session on school funding.

But lawmakers may at least be ready to start negotiating.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office wants a work group on school funding to meet for the first time during the week of Sept. 21 and expects all four partisan caucuses of the Legislature to participate.

That includes Senate Republicans, who have pushed back against the state Supreme Court’s decision in the McCleary case to fine the state $100,000 a day until lawmakers come up with a plan for adding sufficient money to cover basic education.

Representing the Senate majority on the work group are Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center and Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, two Republicans who see the task ahead differently.

Both joined in criticizing the court fine. But Rivers was part of a group of Senate Republicans and Democrats that crafted a $3.5 billion proposal addressing the biggest remaining piece of the McCleary puzzle: how to take over the cost of basic school-employee salaries from school districts that now rely on local levies for much of pay. The plan still lacks a proposed funding source, however.

“If we approach this in a bipartisan way, we will be able to come up with a solution that works,” Rivers said.

Ericksen said he wants the group to talk about how to “fundamentally restructure many of the elements of education,” restricting local collective bargaining, rethinking layers of administration and perhaps even following Nevada’s lead by offering more school choice. Nevada lets parents use public money for private schools or other educational alternatives.

He said the state needs to make changes that will improve test scores and disagrees that $3.5 billion is needed. “The easy narrative for people to talk about is, of course, hey, we need more money,” Ericksen said. “I think it goes much deeper than that.”

There’s no sign yet of a special session — either on McCleary or charter schools, whose future is in doubt after another state Supreme Court ruling striking down the ballot initiative that created the alternative, publicly funded schools.

State schools Superintendent Randy Dorn wants lawmakers back in Olympia to tackle both topics. And Senate Democrats sent a letter to Republicans on Thursday saying they are willing to talk about charter schools as long as school funding is on the table, too.

“Personally, I think that a special session for a targeted purpose like the Legislature approving a McCleary plan is a good idea,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island, who will represent Senate Democrats on the work group along with Sen. Andy Billig of Spokane. “And, at this point, maybe you throw in solving charter schools.”

For now, the lawmakers’ only work in public view may happen outside of Olympia. Starting Sept. 30, a group of senators will go on the road to hear from the public about school funding.

The Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee plans at least seven work sessions through October in Vancouver, Everett, Bremerton, Renton, Spokane, Wenatchee and Yakima.