The Senate Republicans' Billion-Dollar Lie
They Claim to Be Spending Lots of New Money on K–12 Education
When is a billion dollars not a billion dollars? When it's the billion dollars in basic education funding that state senate Republicans claim they've line-itemed into their proposed 2013–2015 state budget.
In their budget fact sheet, senate Republicans awkwardly claim: "$1 billion toward basic education as defined." Period. (They cleverly neglect to specify "as defined" by whom or by what.) That's far short of the $1.4 billion in new K–12 spending the legislature's Joint Task Force on Education Funding has recommended in order to make court- mandated progress toward fully funding "basic education" as defined in the state supreme court's landmark McCleary decision.
Arguably, it is also a lie.
Indeed, it is reasonable to argue that less than half of the Republicans' $1 billion in "new" basic education spending is either new or basic. And even that is only made possible through unsustainable budget tricks and a proposed population-plus-inflation funding formula intended to starve the rest of state government in the name of supporting public schools.
Republicans claim their budget includes $1.5 billion in "additional funding for K–12 education," $1 billion of that targeted as a down payment on McCleary (a claim the news media has faithfully echoed). But a plain reading of their own public-schools budget quickly exposes that lie: The line item "Total Policy Changes"—the sum of the proposed reductions and increases in K–12 spending—amounts to only $587 million.
So how do you get $1.5 billion in "additional funding" out of only $587 million in total K–12 policy changes? Obviously, you can't.
The main trick Republicans use to claim they've budgeted more new money toward education (basic and otherwise) than they actually have is to use the wrong number as their starting point. The senate budget proposes $15.1 billion in 2013–2015 K–12 Near General Fund spending, which is indeed $1.5 billion more than the $13.6 billion the state spent in 2011–2013.
But while that's true in a mathematical sense, from a policy perspective, it is total bullshit. The more meaningful starting point (and the one used to balance out the "Total Policy Changes" line item) is the 2013–2015 "maintenance level" budget—the amount of money necessary to maintain current services at current levels. After all, the court isn't mandating that the state spend a specific dollar amount, but rather an amount sufficient to amply fund basic education.
At $14.6 billion, the 2013–2015 mainte- nance level budget costs about a billion dollars more than the same services cost in 2011–2013. Republicans don't dispute this. These numbers are drawn straight from their budget proposal.
And when you subtract the senate budget's maintenance level numbers from the total K–12 funding proposed for 2013–2015, you get $587 million—the exact same amount as the sum of the cuts and increases presented on the "Total Policy Changes" line in the budget.
That's how much additional resources Republicans propose to invest in K–12 education over the next two years: $587 million. But how much of this represents a net increase in "basic education" funding is harder to discern.
The Republican tally of their McCleary down payment includes $521 million in additional funding for maintenance, supplies, and operating costs (MSOC), $198 million toward student transportation, and $41 million toward phasing in full-day kindergarten to cover 35 percent of kindergarteners. That's $760 million in legitimate basic education spending, though how much of this is really new is debatable.
To reach their $1 billion claim, senate Republicans also count $240 million in new money for the Learning Assistance Program (LAP), a program that currently falls within McCleary's definition of basic education. But they earmark the additional LAP money for new reforms specified in Senate Bill 5330 that fall outside the constitutional obligation. In addition, the senate budget rolls tens of millions of dollars of other non-basic programs into LAP (and possibly MSOC), further complicating the calculations.
All these programs may or may not be worthy, but they weren't recommended by the Joint Task Force, and they don't qualify as basic education under any definition outside of a GOP press release.
Furthermore, much of this "new" spending, basic or not, is offset by cuts elsewhere in the education budget—most significantly, the proposed permanent repeal of Initiative 732, the oft-suspended, voter-approved measure intended to give automatic cost-of-living pay increases to Washington State schoolteachers. I-732's repeal is worth $296 million in the 2013–2015 budget. The senate Republicans' budget fact sheet amazingly promises to "redirect projected dollars to basic education."
As if there is anything more basic to education than schoolteachers.
While both Governor Jay Inslee's and the house Democrats' budgets would once again suspend I-732, they wouldn't repeal it. And unlike the senate Republicans, house Democrats would put $1.3 billion in new basic education spending toward McCleary, funded not by gimmicks, but by closing or narrowing 15 tax exemptions and temporarily extending two expiring taxes.
The Democratic budget isn't perfect, but it's better. And a helluva lot more honest.