Last week, our CEO Chris Korsmo was cautiously optimistic when she wrote about the proposed budgets, saying that Washington was “heading in the right direction on education funding.”
This week, I will go one step further. By the end of this legislative session, what we will see is possibly the best budget for education in the history of the State.
Yes, that is a bold statement, especially with so many issues still unaddressed. However, we can see that the Legislature will invest more comprehensively across the spectrum of education than they ever have.
The League of Education Voters has long argued that a child’s education should be a continuum with seamless transitions from early learning through higher education. We have worked with partners around the state in pursuit of that vision, including with the Cradle through College Coalition. It is gratifying to see the Legislature following through with strategies and investments that support students at all ages.
Below, I elaborate on the supports added, as well as some of the supports still needed, in early learning, K–12 education, and higher education that will bring Washington closer to providing all students access to a public education system that prepares them to succeed and provides them the opportunities to reach that success
Washington state has made steady progress over the years in increasing access to high-quality early learning. While that progress has been meaningful, it has also left far too many children without care and far too many in poor care.
This year, our Legislature is poised to increase access to high-quality early learning and dramatically increase the quality and viability of our childcare system.
In addition to this meaningful step, we need to ensure that children get continuity of service. The current approach causes too many children to cycle into and out of care due to fluctuations in their family’s income levels. We need to ensure stability in their lives by guaranteeing meaningful timeframes for service and end the month-to-month approach to maintaining eligibility for childcare.
While the Washington State Supreme Court has held the Legislature’s collective feet to the fire, we will have two successive budgets that make major investments in K–12 education. Our state will continue on a legitimate path toward satisfying major parts of our obligations to our public schools, including fully funding full-day kindergarten by 2016–2017 and fully funding school materials, supplies, and operating costs (collectively referred to as “MSOC”). Both the House and Senate also added funding for guidance counselors, family engagement personnel, and services for English Language Learner (ELL) students. In addition, K–12 teachers, who have not received cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) since 2008, will finally receive them with this budget. Over one million Washington students will benefit from this budget. This in undeniable and laudable progress.
But so far we have seen no progress on the vexing issue of local levies being used to pay for basic education. Untying this knot is as complicated as anything in state politics (think revising the entire tax code at the federal level for a comparison). However, left unresolved, this issue not only leaves thorny legal issues, it also ensures continued inequities in access for students, wasted state investments, uneven pay for our teachers, and intractable financial challenges for local districts. We must end the use of local levies to pay for state obligations to our schools and fund a rational salary and benefit system for our public school employees.
Given where we were a few short years ago, when higher education was used as the ATM machine to balance the budget (higher education took a 50 percent cut between 2008 and 2013), the change is as positive as it is breathtaking.
At a minimum, tuition will be held at current levels and may even go down. Faculty and staff at both two- and four-year institutions will receive long-delayed increases in pay. Targeted investments in high-need areas will be made. The financial solvency of the successful College Bound Scholarship Program is maintained.
As we head toward the final deal, the last piece of the puzzle is to ensure that we make progress in addressing the waiting list for the State Need Grant. Low-income families and people in transition from one career to another are the most price-sensitive consumers of higher education. While the potential for a tuition decrease is meaningful to many Washington families, it is not a deal maker for those that still cannot afford higher education. We must address funding for the State Need Grant and access for the more than 30,000 Washingtonians who want to go to college but cannot afford to.
Last fall, I urged our lawmakers to keep the “art of compromise” in mind as they worked together on a path forward that provided ample, equitable, and sustainable funding for public education in our state. With these budgets, I am pleased to say that we are closer than ever before to achieving just that.