Sen. Palumbo loves him some charter schools.
Sen. Palumbo loves him some charter schools. He's wrong, but it's nice that he's open about it. Lester Black

In the early hours of Wednesday morning (1:30 a.m!!!), Senators Mark Mullet and Guy Palumbo slipped two potentially poisonous amendments into Senate Bill 5313, which allows school districts to tax themselves more to pay for stuff they need (e.g. librarians).

The move pissed off several education advocates and a couple of Democratic senators, who say the amendments limit the ability for teachers to collectively bargain (which would effectively slash their pay) and increase funding for charter schools. Mullet and Palumbo refused to vote the bill out of the Ways and Means committee, which sometimes has to run long into the night, unless they got their way on these dumb amendments.

Update: Sen. Mullet says his amendment doesn't cut teacher pay or limit bargaining rights. He's wrong, and you can read more about why he's wrong in this post.

In a letter to her colleagues, Sen. Lisa Wellman, who prime-sponsored the bill, wrote, "These amendments do not reflect my values or the values of the Democratic caucus." That's the closest a Democratic senator is going to get to "Fuck you guys. Are you serious? Fuck you guys."

"These amendments are right out of the Betsy DeVos agenda," says education advocate Summer Stinson, founder of Washington's Paramount Duty. "With this proposed pay cut, the teacher shortage will likely grow worse and good teachers will leave. And, it is totally inappropriate to let charter schools have more public money, especially when our public schools are still not fully funded."

If you haven't exactly been following education policy in Washington, you should know that schools are going broke because, as a result of the "McCleary Fix," Republicans and conservative Democrats capped the amount of money school districts could raise through levies. Why? Because Republicans hate raising taxes to pay for things they break. But their somewhat more defensible reason is they want to decrease the economic disparity between school districts. Since wealthier places like Seattle can more easily raise money on property taxes than places in the state where houses don't cost a million dollars, schools in smaller districts have trouble keeping up with schools in larger districts.

Sounds like a noble goal, but it's basically a scam. Under this McCleary deal, larger school districts that need more money to operate can't tax themselves enough to get it, and those districts are now facing significant cuts. Seattle Public Schools, for instance, is looking at a $40 million shortfall in the 2019-2020 school year. In the face of such a large deficit, the district must lay off librarians, nurses, counselors, and other staff they need but can't afford. And it's not just Seattle. About 2/3 of the districts in the state are dealing with deficits.

This is all especially galling, of course, because this year Seattle overwhelmingly approved a levy to fund its schools. We want to tax ourselves to pay for schools. But, because of the levy cap, we can't collect the money we asked for.

Sen. Wellman's bill would lift that cap a bit, but—at least for right now—Mullet and Palumbo are making that bill a lot harder to like.

In an email, Sen. Mullet said his amendment sought to make sure local dollars fund librarians and not teachers' salaries, which he thinks would "land us right back in court."

The more the state relies on local levies to fund basic-education stuff like teachers' salaries, he's arguing, the more likely it is that the state legislature will get sued again for not fully funding basic education.

But, if we learned anything from Scott Walker's reign in Wisconsin, such a move will also result in massive cuts to teacher pay, which will send them back to the picket line again. Plus, if lawmakers don't lift the levy lid, the state would be opening itself up for a lawsuit for not fully funding special education, which is required by federal and state law.

Though he's a Democrat, Sen. Palumbo is an ardent supporter of charter schools, which are publicly funded private schools that weaken the public education system. "The low-income student at a charter school deserves the same level of funding and chance in life as the student at a traditional school," Palumbo said in a statement. "The underlying bill is designed to dramatically increase local levy authority for districts like Seattle which will exacerbate the existing funding disparity. My amendment corrects that situation.”

That's fine. If Palumbo believes that charter schools deserve more public money from the state without a public vote, he can write his own bill requiring the state to match local levies for charter schools, rather than tying it to a bill to fund chronically underfunded public schools.

"The way that it came out is not ideal," said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, who represents Seattle. But he says that he and other non-Mullet/Palumbo Democrats who passed the bill out of committee did so assuming the bill would change somewhere between the Senate floor, the House, and then the Governor's desk.

"We had to take two amendments that I would have preferred not to take in order to get the bill out of Ways and Means. The Senate will now have a caucus, and we’ll have a robust discussion about all of it," Pedersen said.

For his part, Pedersen thinks Mullet was "coming from a good place," but he does not support the amendment as written. However, though he's "not a fan" of charter schools, he said defeating Palumbo's amendment wasn't "a hill he planned to die on."

"In the scheme of things—it’s not the end of the world. You do or do not like charter schools. But they're educating kids. They’re here, and it appears now that they’re here to stay," Pedersen said.

Though he doesn't know what the caucus will ultimately decide on these two issues, he's confident the bill will get through. "The reality of the state budget is there is no world in which we can drive out enough money from the state to solve a $40 million deficit in Seattle," Pedersen said. "The levy lift is an absolutely necessary part of getting Seattle's problem solved."

The problem here is that this problem shouldn't exist. Washington voters gave Democrats a majority in the Senate, and instead of taking that opportunity to pass progressive legislation, some of those Democrats are using the opportunity to achieve conservative goals. Cool. Very good. What an excellent caucus. Glad you guys have the power.