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School Funding Takes Center Stage in State Budget Brinksmanship

In at least three states, K-12 spending was at risk of being shut off as lawmakers and governors spent their pre-holiday weekend in last-ditch efforts to come up with budgets for the fiscal year that began July 1.

In Washington, Illinois and Maine,  major decisions over state spending, including for education, came down to the last minute, in sometimes dramatic fashion.

This past legislative session was pivotal for K-12 spending—and not just in the states that took their budgets to the brink. With Republicans in full control of 31 states, and amid missed tax revenue projections, an abnormal number of states took steps to make fundamental changes to their school funding formulas in the past year, some of them with an eye toward satisfying judicial rulings. 

In Washington, legislators decided July 1 to increase school spending by $7.3 billion over the next four years, according to the Associated Press. The state supreme court will decide in the coming weeks whether the boost in spending adequately satisfies a 2012 ruling that said local districts shouldered way too much of school costs.  The state since then has expanded pre-K access and all-day kindergarten, but had a difficult time figuring out how to increase spending enough to significantly raise teacher salaries so that the minimum starting salary for teachers is $40,000. The state ultimately raised the money by shifting state and local property taxing rates.   

Illinois' Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed Tuesday a $36 billion spending plan that would place an additional $350 million in the state's public schools' coffers. But later this week,  the state's Democratically-controlled House of Representatives is expected to override that veto (the senate voted to override the veto Tuesday), sparing a state shutdown that would've prevented the schools from opening this fall and the state's credit rating being downgraded to junk status.  Meanwhile, Rauner has yet to sign Senate Bill 1, placed on the governor's desk in May, which would overhaul the state's K-12 funding formula so that the state picks up more of public schools' costs.

And in Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, signed Tuesday a $7.1 billion budget that increased education funding by $162 million and adds $1.15 million state money to the federal Head Start preschool program, according to the Associated Press. That ended a three-day government shutdown. Last fall, Maine residents voted to increase taxes on those making $200,000 or more to increase school spending, a proposal LePage said was "illegal" since the state's legislature, not the voters, have taxing authority.  He has for several years now pushed for more accountability on school spending, an effort he said he'll ramp up in the coming years.  

"We emptied the war chest on everything else in the state to take care of education, and we are getting a sub-par system," he said, according to the Portland Press Herald. "And now we got some reforms, you just watch me go the next year. There is going to be some hell to pay in education."


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