$1 billion for schools: Down payment or earnest money?

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OLYMPIA — It’s sort of one of Randy Dorn’s jobs to be over the top.

As the elected superintendent of public instruction, Dorn is the state’s top advocate for public education. And you can’t talk about public education for very long without talking about money.

Like state schools chiefs before him, Dorn is expected to push the Legislature to appropriate as much money for the state’s 295 school districts and 1 million school kids as possible. Now, armed with the unanimous state Supreme Court ruling in McCleary v. Washington, Dorn’s bully pulpit has gotten, well, bullier.

Early last year, the court agreed with a lower court that found the state is not meeting its constitutional duty to “amply” fund public education. Ample means “considerably more than just adequate or merely sufficient,” and the state must come up with a funding source that is ample, stable and dependable. A deadline of 2018 was set, and the state must “proceed with real and measurable progress” toward full funding by then.

Legislative leaders agree on few things, but they know they must increase funding for schools to pay for things they have avoided paying for in the past. They agree that the total ranges from $3.4 billion to $4.1 billion in additional money each biennium. They agree they have to make progress toward that total in each budget until 2018. And they agree they have to show their work to the court in formal reports after each session.

The immediate decision before lawmakers is how much extra the state can afford to budget for schools this year. Somehow, they have landed on the magic number of $1 billion in additional school money for the biennium that begins July 1. That number was cited by former Gov. Chris Gregoire as she was leaving office, accepted by new Gov. Jay Inslee who calls it a down payment toward full funding, and now picked up by budget writers of both houses and both parties.

Why $1 billion? It’s a round number and sounds like a lot of money.

The House Democrats reached $1.3 billion in their first version, but it needed a large influx of cash from closed loopholes, something unlikely to clear the Senate. When the same group fell below that number in their second budget iteration, finding only $700 million directly and another $200 million if a loophole closure bill passed, it’s sub-billion-dollar level was the No. 1 criticism by the Senate majority.

Dorn, as is his role, wants more and has been pushing $1.4 billion. His logic appears to be that since he thinks $4.1 billion is needed by 2018, that number divided by the three two-year budgets that will be approved by then equals about $1.4 billion. A billion dollars, Dorn says, is more of a “deposit” than a down payment, and an unconstitutional one at that.

“I would say they have not made (substantial) progress and the $1 billion is an unconstitutional budget because they are not meeting their paramount duty, and they should be called back to propose a budget (that does),” Dorn told The Olympian’s editorial board last week. “If I get called from the court and they want my opinion, to me — if it’s $1 billion — no, this is not ‘substantial progress.’ It is progress, but it’s not substantial.”

So if $1 billion is a deposit rather than a down payment, what was that end-of-special-session offering of $700 million by House Democrats?

“Earnest money,” Dorn sniffed.

The members of the billion-dollar club are not moved by Dorn’s demands, and it is hard to see the court spanking the state when its lawyers report 60 days after the signing of the 2013-15 budget (presuming there ever is a 2013-15 budget). The court’s order outlining its ongoing monitoring of compliance with McCleary said, “While it is not realistic to measure the steps taken in each legislative session between 2012 and 2018 against full constitutional compliance, the state must demonstrate steady progress.”

The court will ask for comment from, if not Dorn, other folks who share his point of view — the parents and education advocacy groups that won the McCleary case. Thirty days after the state’s report, the plaintiffs get to pass judgment on the Legislature’s performance. And from what they’ve said in the past, they’re tough graders.

Peter Callaghan can be reached at peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com

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