Capitol Ideas: ‘Education lab’ open once more

Friday, February 10, 2017

The first time I placed my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office as a member of the state House of Representatives was in 1995. The atmosphere was charged with the spirit of reform.

From Congress to the halls of state legislatures across the country, there was hope that old problems that seemed intractable would finally be addressed with bold new ideas and a can-do attitude. The states were called the laboratories of democracy. Unfortunately, when it came to education policy in Washington, the lab had closed about a decade before.

For another 20 years — almost all of which was under one-party rule in Olympia — public education remained a declining priority for state budget writers. New ideas were in short supply. Big promises that the 2009 education reforms would fund smaller class sizes, all-day kindergarten and “books and buses” never materialized.

With so many other issues taking precedence over basic education, the state’s 295 school districts had little choice but to become more and more dependent on local taxpayers.

This series of unfortunate decisions led to two extraordinary events: the 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling in the case of McCleary vs. Washington, and, arguably, the creation of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.

In the McCleary decision, the court said the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to provide amply for basic education.

In forming the majority caucus, 23 Republicans and two Democrats decided we would put partisanship aside, and work together on meeting the challenges faced by the state. For us, that meant jobs, education and the budget.

Education, in particular, was a driving force. We knew there would always be those who would use the McCleary decision as an excuse to raise taxes. We argued education should get our first dollars, not our last dimes. We knew that there would be those who would want to just throw money into the same broken system.

We pushed for reforms that would improve results for our students and reward quality teachers. Through our bipartisan leadership, the past four years have seen historic investments in public education — an additional $4.6 billion. And we did it without raising taxes.

How did we do it? During the three decades prior to the formation of the Majority Coalition Caucus, the Legislature prioritized growing the rest of state government ahead of public education by a ratio of 2:1. We reversed that with a 3:1 margin toward education.

But money alone was never going to be the solution.

Graduation rates remain below 80 percent. We still have an opportunity and achievement gap for poor and minority children. There are inequities in the system — in student funding, teacher pay and for taxpayers. And the system is too often focused on adults, not students.

Earlier this month, the Senate passed the One Washington Education Equality Act — our plan to reform the K-12 education system, solve these problems and provide a quality education for every student.

Our proposal provides ample, dependable and equitable funding for students, while repealing the one-size-fits-all prototypical school model. It creates a statewide per-pupil funding system, and establishes $12,500 minimum per-student funding. Additional funding is provided based on student needs such as homelessness, low-income, disabilities and English-language proficiency.

Limiting local levies will help districts where property values are lower to compete when it comes to recruiting and retaining excellent teachers. So will giving districts the flexibility to hire teachers who have the skills and experience, but haven’t pursued a teaching certificate.

Our plan also takes steps to attract and retain quality teachers by increasing starting pay from $35,700 to $45,000 and rewarding excellence with $25,000-$50,000 bonuses for teachers in the Top 5 percent.

The plan brings accountability with concrete performance standards, and provides resources to help those districts not meeting the standards find innovative solutions. This is a bold plan, and there are many who feel more comfortable tinkering with the old system, throwing more money at it, and calling it a day. But as the saying goes, fortune favors the bold.

The Senate has opened the state “education lab” for the first time in my legislative career, and the ideas are flowing.

Our children, teachers and taxpayers deserve a system that is equitable and delivers on results, and that’s just what this plan provides.

— Sen. Jim Honeyford is a Vice Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. To learn more about the One Washington Education Equality Act, visit