Both legislators and lobbyists agree with Gov. Chris Gregoire: 2007 looks like the year of education spending. When the Legislature goes to work on Jan. 8, the big question will be how much of the state's expected $1.9 million surplus will be spent in the classroom.
Setting the agenda will be Washington Learns, which in November issued 50 pages of suggestions about how to improve education in the state.
The governor, who convened the education task force, is asking the Legislature to start putting some money behind those ideas. With the budget surplus and Democrats firmly in control of both the House and the Senate, such spending is considered highly likely.
"The time is right for us," said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, chair of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. "The stars are aligned."
It's also nearly certain the Legislature also will spend time debating the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and whether the math section of the statewide test should be delayed as a graduation requirement. The governor, the superintendent of public instruction and the state Board of Education have all recommended a three-year delay.
In her $29.9 billion budget for the next two years, Gregoire also asks for a 10-year phase-in of full-day kindergarten, expansion of early childhood education by 2,000 students, an increase in teacher salaries, a class-size reduction and money to create a military-style academy for dropouts.
Education makes up more than half of new spending proposals in the governor's budget plan.
"We'll be using Washington Learns as a springboard," McAuliffe said.
She said Washington Learns is a good place to start dealing with the inequities in education funding across the state — something both Democrats and Republicans consider a high priority.
Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, a member of the Washington Learns steering committee, agreed with McAuliffe that education funding disparities should be a high priority in Olympia.
"The Legislature can't really pass the buck on this one," Anderson said, adding that he would push for a constitutional amendment to require education be fully paid for before the state spends on anything else.
Anderson also questioned whether the 10-year plan outlined in the Washington Learns report would be fast enough to fix the state's education system, but he called the governor's math and science budget proposal a good start.
"Twelve years and probably a million dollars on an experimental math approach has damaged our children for this generation. The question is how are we going to fix this so it doesn't happen again," Anderson said.
House Education Chairman Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, called on legislators to be cautious about using the state surplus to try to fix the state's education problems, especially since this would not provide a steady source of money for the classroom.
Quall said Washington does not spend enough per child on education, pointing out that the state is far behind other states.
Considering the rising cost of health care and other fiscal issues, Quall wonders where Washington is going to get all the money it needs to meet its obligations.
Charles Hasse, head of the Washington Education Association, saluted the governor for her efforts to put more money into education, and agreed that it's time to make a meaningful step toward paying for basic education as it was defined by the Legislature in 1993.
He said the teachers union would like to see the Legislature focus on class-size reduction, full-day kindergarten and pay increases that make Washington schools competitive with the West Coast labor market.
"Our priorities are not in conflict with Washington Learns. I think they're just more concrete and specific," Hasse said.
Concerning the WASL, the teachers union would like to see the delay in the math requirement but wants the time used differently. Hasse said the delay should be used to re-examine high-stakes testing and, he hopes, recognize that the WASL is not the best way to judge academic progress.
"In terms of the testing issue this session, we think it should be a broader debate," Hasse said.
On the other side of the WASL debate is the Washington Roundtable, a business organization that wants the math requirement maintained.
Instead of delaying the test, the Legislature should focus instead on moving students toward the academic level they need to pass the test, said Marc Frazer, vice president of the business group. He mentioned a statewide math curriculum, tightening standards and improving teacher training as good next steps.
"It's like an engine warning light," Frazer said of the fact that nearly half of the class of 2008 has yet to pass the math WASL. "The solution isn't to take it out of the car."
The class of 2008 is the first group of students required to pass the WASL in order to graduate.
The Washington Roundtable has come out in favor of more stringent high school graduation requirements to meet the hiring needs of businesses in the state.
"Our topmost concern about the delay proposal is it could send a message to relax attention in math when we need to do just the opposite," Frazer said.
McAuliffe said there will also be debate over other Gregoire education proposals, including her call for all-day kindergarten, which may raise the question of whether school buildings have enough space.
"While we support where she's going ... there's still some questions that need to be asked," McAuliffe said.
—The Associated Press