State Rep. Skip Priest testified for all but 15 minutes on Day 6 of the trial over education funding, giving detailed answers to questions posed Wednesday by attorneys from the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools and from the State. But he never backed down from a definitive position: the failure to fully fund K-12 education is the “Achilles heel” in every step forward the State has taken for decades in education reform.
Although he apologized at times, saying that specific questions about school finance could not be explained in two-sentence answers, he did not shrink when asked about HB 2261. The 2009 education reform bill, signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire in May, seeks to broaden the definition of basic education and provide new financing formulas.
The State considers the new law critical to its case, arguing in court last week that the legislation – which calls for future legislators to tackle the issue over the next decade –would address NEWS’ concerns about compensation, staffing ratios, non-employee related costs, special education, transportation and other costs.
The final bill wasn’t what everyone wanted because Gov. Gregoire vetoed sections dealing with early learning and gifted education. Even so, Senior Assistant Attorney General Carrie Bashaw asked Rep. Priest, isn’t it true that “the sticking points don’t outweigh the great strides” made by the legislation?
Rep. Priest, a Federal Way Republican and the ranking minority member on the House Education and Education Appropriation committees, replied that “from a policy standpoint, (HB) 2261 was an important piece of legislation.” But because it fails to provide dollars for all-day kindergarten, equitable salaries, transportation and other areas with shortfalls, he said, it is “another unfunded mandate and unacceptable.”
The law “helps provide direction for the future,” Rep. Priest said. “What it doesn’t do today is address the underfunding of (HB) 1209,” the education reform bill passed in 1993 with the goal of specifying the education and skills that all Washington students should have in order to live and compete in the 21st century.
The failure to fully fund education is “the same Achilles heel that we’ve had on the debate on (HB) 1209,” Priest said, his voice rising. “And I say that as a sponsor – a proud sponsor – of (HB) 2261.”
Wednesday’s proceedings were heavy on exhibits, charts, statistics and reports, all generally familiar to Rep. Priest, who served on Washington Learns, the governor’s task force that reviewed the State’s entire education system. He also served on the State’s Basic Education Finance Task Force, among other education-related committees.
On several occasions in response to questions by Bashaw or NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne, Rep. Priest said that specific percentages or dollar figures were not as important as the shortcomings they represented.
For instance, when Bashaw noted that dropout rates had declined in recent years, Priest said that “whatever that number (of dropouts) is, it’s unacceptable.” Later, responding to questions from Ahearne, Rep. Priest said research showed that students who drop out in high school often make those decisions as early as sixth grade.
“We know some students are not going to be successful,” he said. “But we also know that it’s our responsibility to provide everybody with the reasonable expectation (to achieve) – and I believe we are not doing that.”
Creating the optimum educational system will require greater State funding in four areas, he said: high quality teachers, professional development, early learning and “fundamentals.” The latter referred to the competitive salaries, textbooks, transportation and other costs that school districts must now fund through local levies. Washington court cases relating to school finance “said we should not depend on levies because they are undependable, and yet we are doing that today,” Rep. Priest said.
Later, Bashaw asked if Washington should provide a “basic education” or a “high quality” education. Replied Rep. Priest: “I believe they are the same. If one reads the (HB) 1209 requirements in statute, there is no difference.”
Judge John Erlick asked Rep. Priest whether HB 2261, if fully implemented, would fulfill the State’s mandate in Article IX, section 1 of the Washington Constitution, which states that the State’s “paramount duty” is to amply provide for the education of all children.
No, answered Rep. Priest, because HB 2261 lacks funding. “Unless you show me the money,” he said, that good policy “doesn’t matter.”
What if “a magic pot of money” existed that could fully fund HB 2261, the judge asked – would that fulfill the mandate? The answer is still no, Rep. Priest replied, because the new law lacks specifics. “So much of it is intent. So much of it is general. If it’s not basic education, (it’s just policy),” he said.
Rep. Priest’s testimony ended with Ahearne asking if the State, if ordered by the court, could create a program of basic education, determine the cost and fund it for all children. Rep. Priest’s answers to all three questions: yes.
Coming up on Thursday: Erin Jones, assistant superintendent at the Center for the Improvement of Student Learning at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, will resume her testimony and James Kelly, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, might also testify.