Sunday, May 29, 2011

Legislative Session Winners and Losers, Sine Die Edition

After 135 days of blood, toil, sweat, and tears.....this.

This was the toughest education budget on record. Sure, a lot of the $2,000,000,000 in cuts were delays in planned increases, like the COLA for teachers and fully funding I-728, but there's also some very real harm that has been dropped on the system via pay cuts, increased class size, and higher tuition. Who are the winners and losers?

Winner: Neal Kirby and Levy Equalization The two legislative sessions prior to this one levy equalization, the program that allows poorer school districts to keep up with the Joneses, was slated for elimination in each of Governor Gregoire's budgets before being saved by the legislature. This year the Governor didn't propose to eliminate LEA, instead floating an idea from the levy workgroup for a prorated system, but it didn't get anywhere, either.

One of the Republican senators who I visit with said one of the highlights of the session for him was having both the WEA and PSE lobbyists say that preserving levy equalization was their number one priority, and that commitment showed all session long. Neal Kirby isn't just a prolific emailer--he's also a one-man shop who's managed to make LEA one of the top school funding issues, and I think you saw the work of 20 years really pay off these last few months.

Loser: State Representative Ross Hunter Oh, this frackin guy.

I'll give Rep. Hunter some credit first, because the House budget was pretty good on the education front, and that's thanks to him guiding the process along. My beef is with regards to SB5846, a good little bill prime sponsored by Senator Lisa Brown of Spokane that offered an early retirement incentive for members of the oldest teachers retirement plan (and, by extension, the oldest teachers). The Senate projected that it would save the state about $3,000,000, and it would have opened up about 1,000 spots to help the layoff crisis.

Where things went wrong, though, was on the second to last day of the session in Rep. Hunter's Ways and Means Committee. They gave it a hearing--a hearing where the bill seemed to be pretty well received by members from both parties--but then late that night Rep. Hunter introduces an amendment to the bill that completely ruins the damn thing. It still manages to pass out of the House (with bi-partisan support!), but the Senate refused to concur, the House insisted, and because of Rep. Hunter's amendment, the bill didn't make it to the Governor.

I don't know what Rep. Hunter was thinking--I haven't pulled up that video on TVW yet, though I intend to--but this was a pro-teacher bill that saved the state money, and he trashed it. Shame on him.

Winner: School Districts that Passed Bonds The reason that those who care about education should also pay attention to the Capital Budget is that is where you'll find the Construction Matching Grant program, which provides money from the state to school districts to help them with their new school projects. This piece of the financing is what makes many of these projects possible, and without the Capital Budget going through they very well could have been stopped in their tracks.

Even after unemployment insurance, worker's comp, and the operating budget were settled, it was the capital budget that was threatening to put a spanner in the works. Had they adjourned without one they still could have funded some projects on a cash basis (and you know, maybe they should), but that would have cut the money available for schools approximately in half. By passing and agreeing to the changes to the debt limit, everything can go on as it should. That's a relief.

Loser: Sen. Rodney Tom and Stand for Children Sen. Tom first showed up on the radar this year when he and Sen. Hatfield went walkabout from a key Senate Ways and Means committee meeting, effectively ruining a good bill on community colleges and putting an almost fatal delay to the retirement bill mentioned above. This was followed by his absolute travesty of a school reform bill, which would have cost senior teachers $20,000 a pop to fund some of the most poorly thought out merit schemes that have ever been seen, and then a misguided attempt to get his way by ruining a House bill with an amendment.

The thing is, for all the attention he got from Publicola and The Washington Policy Center, the proposal still didn't get out of the legislature, and Tom revealed just how little thought he put into the whole enterprise. He can kvetch all he wants about that one study from a bought-and-paid-for professor that denigrates Masters degrees, but the inescapable truth is that was a promise made to generations of teachers. If the state is not now willing to keep that promise, why would any teacher trust the follow-up promise he's making about merit pay and redistributing the money?

If Senator Tom was sincere about school reform he'd be talking to teachers, and not just the ones who agree with him.

Winner: Small and Rural School Districts Not only was levy equalization left whole, but changes to bus depreciation that would have nailed small schools were left out of the final budget, and the K-4 enhancement money which was lost doesn't mean a whole lot to a place like Odessa where it only provides for an additional .25 FTE teachers. Further, Rep. Hunt's bill regarding school district consolidation went nowhere yet again, with a big reason being the work of Jim Kowalkowski of Davenport and the other members of the Rural Education Center out of WSU.

One wonders if the wins (well, lack of losses) for small schools can't be partially attributed to Sen. Eric Oemig losing his re-election campaign against Andy Hill. Oemig was fond of pointing out how much it costs to educate students per capita in a place like Benge compared to Seattle or Bellevue. It's a stat that's absolutely correct while also being absolutely meaningless at the same time. Remember, too, that early in the session you had a lot of chatter about disparities in state funding by county, pushed by David Goldstein and Reuven Carlyle, but the facts and figures didn't get much more than a cursory glance during the session.

Loser: College Kids Every one of our 4-year state institutions is looking at double-digit tuition increases each of the next two years, ranging from 12% at Eastern Washington to 16% at the UW, WSU, and Western. The community college system is also staring 12% rate increases in the face, this in a time of 10% unemployment and people desparate for the job training they need to get back to work.

Washington is very quickly moving towards a model where the only state support is via financial aid, and that's why it's so damned tempting for the universities (particularly the UW) to go after those out-of-state students who pay full freight. This is a fundamental change in what we envision our schools to be, and I'm not sure we went there for the right reasons. Time will tell.

Winner: Representative Susan Fagan (9th LD--Pullman) When Rep. Don Cox retired it was a sad day for a lot of us in Eastern Washington, because there was no one better and making the rural case for our schools. Rep. Cox was knowledgeable, passionate, and able to make legislators see the long-term impact for schools on the decisions they made.

Rep. Cox retired two years ago, followed closely by Rep. Skip Priest of Federal Way, another Republican education leader on the House Education Committee. In their wake Rep. Bruce Dammeier stepped up to be the Ranking Minority Member, but the person to keep an eye on in the future is Rep. Fagan.

She's on the House Education, Education Appropriations, and Higher Education committees, and in my judgment she's one of the most inquisitive, thoughtful people to be found. She seems to truly relish the visits that she makes to schools in the 9th LD, and I admire any Eastern Washington legislator who makes that many trips over the mountains during the session. She's a person who can really lead on education issues in a way that a "democrat" like Rodney Tim never will be able to, and that's to her credit.

This year Eastern Washington had Andy Billig, Susan Fagan, and Joel Kretz all serving on the Education Committee. That's a pretty neat thing to see after Rep. Cox having to carry the load for so many years, and it'll be an interesting dynamic to follow into the future.

Loser: Governor Christine Gregoire Remember when we were going to consolidate all the education agencies into one superagency, headed by a Gubernatorial appointee?

Neither did the legislature.

I suppose I can't put all the blame on the Governor for this one, because debates over unemployment insurance, worker's comp, and the budgets seemed to take up most of the space in the session, but it's a little hard to look at her talking them down from a 3% pay cut to a 1.9% pay cut as a big win when the House budget proposal didn't have any pay cut in it at all. I get that we're in a better position than teachers in Wisconsin or Indiana, but in Washington State shouldn't we be able to put better praise on our Governor than to say, "Hey, she's not Scott Walker!"

Loser: The Washington State PTA The danger in putting out a legislative agenda is that when you don't get that agenda done it can be a rather unfortunate position to be in, and that's where the PTA finds themselves.

Tying layoff to teacher evaluation? Nope.
Making compensation depend on test scores? Didn't happen.
Funding education first? Well, we were some of the first cuts, if that counts.
More education reform bills? The big one was HB2111, to move forward the recommendations of the Quality Education Council, and it got stuck in the Senate.

The two exceedingly modest proposals they did get behind were for elementary mathematics specialists and WaKIDS, but in the larger scheme of things they were every bit as frustrated as all the other education interest groups.

What's next? The Revenue Forecast on June 16th will give us a good peek at where things might go in the next year. There will be a couple of special elections in November, for the seats held by Jim Jacks, Bob McCaslin, and Phil Rockefeller. The ESEA reauthorization might start getting some attention, as will the Race to the Top grants focused on early childhood education, where Washington really has a shot.

The beat goes on.


Anonymous Nate said...

It would be a big sacrifice for the education budget if its delays in cut which planned increase teachers COLA. Maybe the cause of delay is to review the possible cause and effect of the situation.

11:57 PM  

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