State lawmakers fully fund public schools this year

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One of the things I’ve learned in my eight years serving in the Legislature is that no state budget checks all the boxes on my wish list. This year’s supplemental budget is no exception, but it comes pretty close.

In my column last month, I wrote about the House budget proposal, which had just passed that chamber. It fully funded our public schools while also cutting property taxes statewide. In order to provide long-term property tax relief, the proposal included a new capital gains excise tax that would have affected just 5,000 of Washington’s highest-income taxpayers – less than one-half of one percent of taxpayers in our state. It’s an idea I’ve long championed as one way to make our state’s tax system – currently the most regressive in the nation – a little more fair while ensuring everyone contributes their fair share toward our public schools.

But budgets are about compromise, and negotiators in the House and Senate reached an agreement that didn’t include the capital gains excise tax. However, it does include a property tax cut for 2019, keeps a robust rainy day fund as a hedge against the next recession, and it finally fully funds our public schools by speeding up teacher compensation reforms the state Supreme Court wanted phased in this year. This effort should put an end to the fines the Court imposed on the state and fully addresses the decade-long McCleary lawsuit once and for all.

As the parent of a public school student, I couldn’t be more thrilled to reach this milestone. When I first came to the Legislature, my son was in elementary school. He’s now in high school, and I can finally tell him legislators lived up to their responsibility to him and the 1.1 million school children across our state.

Additionally, legislators made some adjustments to the education funding plan passed in 2017. This includes more funding for special education. It also addresses a teacher pay discrepancy known as regionalization. Basically, some districts that border each other have big differences in teacher pay. It’s hard for one district to attract and keep good teachers when those same teachers can earn more in the next district over.

Likewise, last year’s school funding solutions had a particularly negative impact on the Tacoma School District. These challenges were not clear when legislators passed the funding mechanisms in 2017, but became evident as we examined the impacts. That’s why my colleagues and I strengthened hold harmless language in state statute, to ensure school districts like Tacoma don’t net fewer dollars after levy adjustments are made.

Incredible progress happened on the K-12 education front, but I’m still not satisfied. And I know from talking with parents, students, teachers, education advocates and my legislative colleagues that there is still more work to be done moving forward. While the McCleary piece is settled, other challenges remain.

In 2019, you can expect state lawmakers will be looking at ways to address the ongoing teacher shortage crisis. In a recent survey of school district human resources directors, 97 percent said they were having a hard time hiring qualified teachers. That’s troubling.

Work will also continue on increasing graduation rates, as well as closing the opportunity gap. You can expect to hear more about restructuring the Learning Assistance Program, known as LAP, which helps students who are falling behind academically. School districts should have more flexibility to allocate LAP dollars to where they’ll help the most students and do the most good. The state also needs to increase funding for additional guidance counselors and family engagement coordinators, because we know increasing family engagement in a child’s education increases that child’s chances of success.

There will be further conversations around de-linking high-stakes testing from graduation requirements, as we seek ways to measure performance and boost accountability that don’t withhold diplomas from students who otherwise deserve them.

Finally, we know in addition to academic skills, students also need behavioral skills like the ability to handle stress, to build healthy relationships, and to self-regulate their behavior. Providing the resources for school districts to engage students in social and emotional learning will go a long way toward helping our students prepare for success in life.

So the work continues. As a community, we can celebrate the progress that’s been made, while committing to working together to ensure our children get the high-quality education they deserve.

Laurie Jinkins is a public health official from Tacoma who serves as a member of the Washington House of Representatives from the 27th district.

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