State needs dedicated fund for education

Unfortunately, it will have to wait until the economy improves.

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Last week's state Supreme Court ruling affirming the state is falling short of its constitutional duty to fund basic education isn't likely going to result in any additional funding for schools. But it will probably keep school funding from being reduced.

That was the buzz in Olympia this week as lawmakers gathered for a 60-day session in which trimming at least $1 billion from the budget tops the legislative agenda.

Prior to the high court ruling, Gov. Chris Gregoire suggested trimming four days off the usual 180 day school year to save $100 million. In addition, she wanted to reduce by $152 million funding for the state's levy equalization program that aims to reduce funding disparity between districts.

But Gregoire was also pitching a half-penny boost in the state sales tax for three years to "buy back" those cuts to education as well as cuts to colleges, social services, prisons and parole.

The high court ruling puts a kink in those plans. It will make it difficult for lawmakers to make any cuts to funding for schools.

House Speaker Frank Chopp said there's growing discussion about taking a hands-off approach to anything considered part of the state's constitutional requirement to provide basic education, according to a report in The (Tacoma) News Tribune newspaper.

"We don't want to necessarily leave basic education funding out there hanging for a public vote," Chopp said.

And Gregoire apparently sees it the same way. She told reporters that the hands-off approach includes the idea of shortening the school year.

The court ruling in conjuction with the dire economic situation has even Republicans talking about the possibility of new revenue -- higher taxes.

"There is room for a robust kind of new revenue debate, but it shouldn't be based on whether you're going to cut education or not," said Rep. Bruce Dammeier, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee. "If you want to be talking about revenue for education, it needs to be additional revenue, not (to avoid) cutting."

In theory, we agree, although we are not ready to embrace a new statewide tax at this time.

The economic pain from the Great Recession still lingers (as evidenced by the lower-than-anticipated tax revenue). Lawmakers should balance the current budget with the money available.

But when the economic situation stabilizes the Legislature should consider new revenue for education as part of a dedicated funding source for basic education.

This could be part of an overall plan to take a percentage of the current taxes and earmark them solely to fund basic education.

If extra dollars were collected from these taxes they could be set aside specifically to be used for education -- and only education -- in the future when a downturn in the economy forces a dip in revenue.

The first step toward coming up with a longterm funding plan for education starts this year with retaining the current funding budgeted for schools.

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