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Washington lawmakers to address education funding after court fines state

The national debate over education quality is playing out in Washington state this week, where state leaders are set to begin addressing inequalities in public school funding next week. The meetings come on the heels of a state Supreme Court decision to impose a $100,000 fine per day to address K-12 school funding. Seattle Times reporter Joseph O'Sullivan joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    The national debate over education quality, integration, and funding is playing out in two states this week: Washington and Florida.

    We begin with Washington state, where state leaders will meet Monday to begin addressing inequities in public school funding. The move comes after the state Supreme Court imposed a $100,000-a-day fine this week, because the judges say, kindergarten-through-12th grade education is insufficiently funded. The court said the state needs to do more to reduce class size, expand kindergarten, and raise teacher pay. Other states, such as Kansas, Ohio, and New Jersey, have also been embroiled in court fights over school funding.

    Joining me now to discuss the problems in Washington state is Seattle Times reporter Joseph O'Sullivan.

    So, we're all paying attention to the $100,000-a-day fine. That seems like sticker shock to a viewer or audience member, but this has been a long time coming. How did we get here?

  • JOSEPH O’SULLIVAN, THE SEATTLE TIMES:

    So, the Washington state constitution says expressly that education is the, quote/unquote, "paramount" duty of the state to provide for. And so, in 2007, a family, the McCleary family, who had children in school sued the state, along with some school districts and teachers unions, saying that the state was underfunding.

    And it made its way to the Supreme Court which in 2012 agreed saying the state was unconstitutionally underfunding the school system. So, the court imposed a 2018 deadline for the state to come up with more funding and fix some specific problems.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So here we are now, the courts — the judges basically say they're completely dissatisfied. They're slapping this significant fine on them, but it doesn't seem to have caused the type of deterrent we think. I mean, in your reporting, you say some of the legislators say, you know what? Let's keep racking up the fines until January because that will still only add up to $14 million versus what we have to fund this thing by.

  • JOSEPH O’SULLIVAN:

    Sure, that's the thing. The penalty in that sense is symbolic because $14 million, you know, in a budget that's $38 billion large isn't that much money, and the problem is significantly bigger in the portion of the court's decision on teacher compensation. It's going to be about $3.5 billion every two-year budget cycle to fix.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. So what are some of the inequities? What are — what's at the core of this? What sorts of programs are missing? What sorts of teachers are underfunded? Is there inequity from one neighborhood or one community to another?

  • JOSEPH O’SULLIVAN:

    Sure. Well, so far, the state legislature has put money into school funding. The state has provided more money for transportation costs, materials and operation supplies. They've put money into funding all-day kindergarten, and kindergarten through three class size reduction.

    But one of the big pieces that's still hanging out there is that the state isn't funding teacher pay enough. And what happens in Washington state is that local property tax levies provide supplemental funding for teacher pay, so local school districts wind up coming up with more money to pay their teachers.

    And so, that's one of the big inequality questions because poorer school districts that don't have as wealthy residents, as wealthy — good property tax levies, they can't provide funding for their teachers as easily as a wealthy district can.

    And so, that's one of the things that lawmakers are going to have to figure out. And it's kind of — one of the things that's being talked about is a property tax levy swap whereby some of the richer districts would send money — pay more money and send that money to the poorer districts, but that's very politically complicated to do because it's, you know, politically tricky for everybody.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, where else is this happening? Or is this just peculiar to Washington state because of how the constitution's written?

  • JOSEPH O’SULLIVAN:

    So, these have played out in a lot of states. About 45 states have had some kind of litigation before.

    For Washington state, we actually had a similar case back in the 70s to deal with teacher compensation and local property tax levies. So, it's not super unusual. What is unusual for us this time is that it's the first time the state has sanctioned — the court has sanctioned the state and fined the state.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Joseph O'Sullivan from The Seattle Times — thanks so much.

  • JOSEPH O’SULLIVAN:

    Thank you.

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