Former governor Spellman on education: Constitution, conscience, and common sense

Jun 22, 2017

John Spellman honored me with a visit yesterday. It’s been a while since our previous time together, but Washington’s 18th governor, at age 90, is as sharp and inquisitive as I remembered.

In 12 years as King County executive and four years as governor, he accomplished much, as his “Legacy Washington” story explains. However, the former Republican chief executive doesn’t get enough credit (with Republicans who led both legislative chambers then) for supporting public schools. More than half the state’s general-fund spending went to public schools in 1981-83, during the first half of his term. That level hasn’t been reached since (although it should be in the new state budget).

Governor Spellman took office during the post-Jimmy Carter, post-Dixy Lee Ray economic downturn. When a predicted recovery didn’t materialize that summer, legislative overtimes and spending cuts and tax increases followed to keep the 1981-83 budget afloat.

As his December 1982 budget message to legislators put it, “special efforts were made throughout that budget process to protect the common schools.” With an eloquence that’s rare these days, his message continued in a way that reads much like our Senate majority’s priorities:

“Foremost among our priorities is our commitment to education. Our constitution, our consciences, and our common sense make that commitment not only necessary but right. Our other obligations are equally compelling: to support those in need or those unable to care for themselves; to protect the public through effective law enforcement and corrections programs; and, to promote a fair, stable and adequate tax structure. Establishing these priorities and meeting these obligations will require our working together and the cooperation and support of the people.”

His 1983-85 “budget for hard times and the few more lean years to come” allowed public-school spending to slip below a 50% share. The Democratic governors and Democrat-controlled legislatures who followed didn’t reverse that after the economy rebounded. Things got worse instead. In 2005-07, despite record-setting revenue growth, funding for the state’s paramount duty sank to a dozen points below Spellman’s first biennium. It’s no coincidence that the McCleary lawsuit was filed in 2007.

Washington students have no better ally in Olympia than our Republican-led Senate majority. We’ve reversed the Democrat trend and restored K-12 education to its rightful place in the budget. I enjoyed telling the former governor that I expect to reach or exceed the “Spellman standard” in the 2017-19 budget.