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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington state leaders, aware of a looming court deadline, say the upcoming 60-day legislative session is when they will figure out how to reform the way the state pays for education.
But legislative leaders speaking at The Associated Press Legislative Preview on Thursday said they still haven't resolved where to find the money and likely won't get there until the 2017 Legislature.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said the Legislature is under pressure from both the courts and state law to finally resolve the complicated budget issues at the heart of the Supreme Court ruling known as the McCleary decision. The ruling said the state wasn't spending enough on basic education, including teacher salaries, and depended too much on local tax levies.
The Legislature faces a 2018 deadline to finish paying for its previous commitments to improve education.
A scheduled end to some financial support for local schools, including state levy equalization and a boost to the amount local school districts can collect, may put more pressure on the Legislature than the 2012 McCleary ruling.
"There will be districts that will go bankrupt if we don't solve the problem," said Sullivan, D-Covington.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler also expressed confidence that the Legislature can get its education work done, noting that lawmakers found a bipartisan solution to transportation funding last year.
"When we need to work together, we have shown that we can do it," said Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Although lawmakers have many other priorities this year — from mental health to state prisons and wildfires — House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said nothing will take priority over education funding.
The governor said a bipartisan group working on education funding has made excellent progress since the last legislative session ended and have reached substantial common ground.
Lawmakers serving on that work group said they will have a plan to discuss and vote on that they are working on getting buy-in from their political caucuses.
"Progress is slow because we need to bring our colleagues along. We also need to bring the public along," said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, noted that the Legislature has made progress during the past few years on spending more on education, but the local levy issue is a bigger, more difficult problem because it involves inequity among school districts and the education students are getting across the state.
"This equity issue is complicated," he said.
Some of that plan, which has not been released, will focus on getting more data to figure out exactly how much money the state needs to end its overreliance on local levies for basic education funding.
Democrats on Thursday said that number is about $3.5 billion. But Republicans say all estimates are just that until they have the data from local school districts about how much of their levy dollars are paying for basic education expenses like classroom teacher salaries.
Members of both parties emphasized that the state's education funding problem is not an issue of trying to satisfy the Supreme Court.
"This is about the education of our children, not just the court order," said the governor, who is also concerned about a current teacher shortage.
This story was corrected to reflect that Chad Magendanz is a representative.
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