Once again, our legislature is about to close up shop with a whirlwind of political theater. In what has become a too-familiar finish to the annual “McCleary” drama over school funding, a pre-scripted parade of bills, budgets, tax tweaks, and self-congratulations will end months of pretend deadlock.
By next week, Republican and Democrats will be holding hands, joined in a now-bipartisan goal to decoy the Supreme Court with the illusion of progress so they can reenact the whole thing one more time before next year’s general election.
We’ll need some time to fully map the consequences of the back-room deals hidden inside the new budgets. But make no mistake: way before legislators teed up a final budget this week, their delay and drama had already inflicted major damage to our state.
So before they start congratulating each other for putting another budget in the bag, they should look at the many consequences of what has become a new norm in legislative dysfunction:
Each year around 24% of our high school students drop out. A recent study by our state’s major business leaders calculated that in this year alone, some 8,300 seniors quit before June graduation. Our legislators could have cut that in half had they fully staffed our state’s public high schools with the teachers, text books, computers and counselors required by the legislature’s own yardsticks.
Our teachers are dropping out, too. Radically underpaid, treated as pawns, not professionals, many thousands of our dedicated educators hang it up every year. Result: a full scale, state-wide teacher shortage. Every day our legislators were paying themselves per diem to go to work nearly every school district in the state was scrambling to fill empty teacher slots.
The legislature knew about this emergency on day one of the legislative session but refused to send an ambulance. Because political paralysis prevented even the simplest and most bi-partisan of remedies, expect even worse next school year.
If education is the main engine of our state’s economy, we’re getting many “check engine” warning lights. No one thrives when we leave so many kids behind or trap so many college students so deep in debt. No one thrives when our teachers abandon their calling.
Hungry to hire, our world-leading businesses have stayed competitive only by importing skilled people from elsewhere. And elsewhere is where those companies will soon move if we don’t quickly fix our education engine.
But rather than strategizing how to expand and update our whole system of public schools—especially including our colleges and advanced skill centers—our legislators preoccupy themselves with miniaturizing “McCleary,” hunting for the smallest possible school budget with the smallest possible increase in taxes to pay for it.
In 2012 our Supreme Court’s put this sentence at the heart of its landmark McCleary decision: “Education…means the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy.” So far, there has been no meaningful participation in this most fundamental of public interests – our schools. Five years of partisan maneuvering have kept education strategy in political back-rooms instead in our citizen’s living rooms.
Thirty days after they manage to pass a budget and gavel the final Special Session to a close, our legislators must report to our Supreme Court their success in meeting their constitutional duty – a report that itself will be fashioned out of sight.
Let’s not wait. McCleary will never really be fixed until it is fixed in public. If our state is to continue as one of the world’s leading high tech, high skills economies, if all our youth are to have an opportunity to share that future, then today’s voters need to be let back into the decisions about our schools.
Larry Seaquist is a former U.S. Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist. He served eight years in the Washington State Legislature.