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Originally published Friday, April 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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State set to take on more of cost of education

The state Senate voted Thursday to expand the state's responsibility to its 1 million schoolchildren, adding to the list of programs it must pay for under the state constitution.

Seattle Times education reporter

The state Senate voted Thursday to expand the state's responsibility to its 1 million schoolchildren, adding to the list of programs it must pay for under the state constitution.

Supporters consider the bill a historic piece of legislation, one that updates a 30-year-old definition of basic education they've long considered inadequate.

To be phased in as money becomes available over the next nine years, the bill also would simplify education-funding formulas, and usher in a number of other changes.

"It is not all right to be 47th in the nation in class size. It's not all right to have a dropout rate between 20 and 30 percent. And it's not all right to pay our teachers 21st in the nation," ... said state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, who chairs the Senate's early-learning and K-12 education committee.

Opponents, including the largest teachers union in the state, have sharply questioned the value of overhauling the education-finance system during the biggest economic crisis in generations and when education already faces big budget cuts.

"We don't have a clue, one clue, about where we're going to get [the money]," said state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima.

The Senate-passed measure would, among other changes:

• Make full-day kindergarten a state responsibility, up from a half day now.

• Add 80 hours of instruction time to what the state funds.

• Provide districts more money for transportation.

• Eventually add preschools for high-risk students.

School districts now offer some of that, but pay for it with local property-tax levies that are supposed to be for extras, not for the basics.

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The Senate bill, approved 26-23, moves to the House, where lawmakers earlier approved a bill containing many of the same provisions.

The Washington Constitution says that providing an ample education for students is the state's paramount duty.

The state is already facing two lawsuits saying it falls short of that constitutional responsibility.

Supporters have said they want a new education plan in place for when the economy turns around.

"Unless we make plans for the future ... we are not going to be able to compete in this global economy," said state Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma.

The bill also would create a council to oversee the plan's implementation, and a number of work groups, including one that would develop a new system for paying teachers.

It is an expensive bill. Opponents noted that no one knows how much it might cost in the future, since many of the details have yet to be determined. Estimates start in the billions.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn backs the bill, as does the League of Education Voters, the state PTA, and Mary Jean Ryan, chairwoman of the state Board of Education.

"These are not radical moves to make. They're very common sense," Ryan said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, who earlier threatened to veto any bill that didn't include a funding source, now supports the Senate's bill.

The biggest reason is that it no longer sets a date for when the state must start ramping up school funding. In previous versions, a bill in the House set the starting date for 2011.

Gregoire was afraid that language would lead to lawsuits if the state didn't have the money by then, said her legislative liaison, Marty Brown.

But some opponents still worry that the Senate bill, if passed by the House as expected, could lead to a successful lawsuit.

The Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, says the bill distracts from the big cuts schools will face in the next two years — as much as $625 million to $877 million.

The state is "not funding the current definition of basic education," said Rich Wood, WEA spokesman. "So how does rewriting and adding to it ... make any guarantee there will be funding?"

Lawmakers, he said, "are gutting the classroom ... and we're supposed to believe a promise that somewhere down the road they're going to fund our schools?"

Teachers in many areas have warned legislators that they will actively work to replace anyone who votes for the bill.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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