Under the McCleary decision, will school districts that now raise a lot from their local taxpayers have to give up some of those dollars? It’s possible.

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The third and final question for this round of Education Lab IQ, short for “Interesting Questions,” lived up to its moniker. Of the people we interviewed to help us answer it, half said, “Well, that’s an interesting question.”

The second most-popular response was “that’s difficult.”

And Friday it became a lot more timely, as Senate Republicans proposed an education-funding plan that sheds some light on the topic.

The question: Under the McCleary decision, will school districts that now raise a lot from their local taxpayers have to give up some of those dollars to provide for districts with fewer resources? Thank you to Hilary Benson, who submitted the question.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

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The short answer: It’s not yet clear.

The long answer: It’s possible, but not because of the McCleary decision per se. That’s because the state Supreme Court, in the McCleary decision, ordered the state to cover the full costs of providing a basic education to Washington’s students. But it didn’t say how. So the answer depends on how the state responds to the Supreme Court order.

The levy swap “has nothing to do with what the Supreme Court ordered, but it could be in the response that some legislators have mentioned,” said Tom Ahearne, the lead attorney for the coalition of education advocates that filed the McCleary lawsuit.

If the state decides to do what’s known as the “levy swap,” wealthier districts may have to give up dollars that could be redistributed to poorer districts. That’s been part of some “levy swap” proposals in the past. A “levy swap” isn’t strictly defined, but it generally means that the state would raise its property taxes, while simultaneously lowering local ones that are now devoted to schools. That’s where the “swap” comes in — state dollars for basic education going up, while local ones go down.

The state Senate Republicans’ education-funding plan, released Friday, includes a swap that calls for a new state property tax for schools, largely replacing local school levies. Under their plan, money wouldn’t be redistributed, but property owners in some districts would end up paying more school taxes than in the past — and some would pay less. That’s because the proposal calls for everyone to pay the same rate: $1.80 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Under the GOP proposal, Seattle’s current local schools property-tax levy rate would increase, from $1.28 per $1,000 in assessed value to $1.80, which GOP leaders said would mean an average increase of about $250 a year.

In the past, Republican lawmakers have said a levy swap would spread state education dollars more equally, and not allow some districts to raise more locally than others. Opponents, such as the Washington teachers union, call levy-swap proposals a distraction that would reshuffle money but not bring in any new funding.

Richer districts already help poor districts to some extent. That’s under a method called “levy equalization,” under which property-poor districts get extra state money to make up for what they would have a hard time raising locally. Lawmakers have proposed various cuts to that program, which also wasn’t specifically addressed in the McCleary decision. Under the Republicans’ plan, for example, levy equalization would be repealed in 2019.

As far as Ahearne is concerned, the ideal solution is to add funding to poorer districts without taking anything away from wealthier ones. As an example, he cited the Mercer Island and Yakima school districts, which differ greatly in how much the districts are able to pay teachers and fund programs.

“If they want to have an equitable system, it’s not to underfund everybody, it’s bringing everyone up,” he said. “It would be ideal to bring everyone to Mercer Island (funding), rather than swiping some from Mercer Island and giving it to Yakima.”

The levy swap is just one piece of the debate over how the state will comply with the 2012 McCleary decision, which set a 2018 deadline for when the state needs to fully cover the costs of a basic education.

The proposals from the governor, the House Democrats and the Senate Republicans cover everything from how teachers are paid, to whether teachers should get cost-of-living adjustments based on where they live, to how to raise more money for education.

While the state already has added billions of dollars in education funding, it hasn’t dealt with the big-ticket issue of pay for teachers and other school employees. That is expected to cost an estimated $3.5 billion every two years.

School districts also have been very concerned about the so-called “levy cliff,” which they fear will lower the amount they can raise locally before they get more from the state. But lawmakers already are considering a bill to maintain the levy authority at current levels. If they don’t, however, Seattle Public Schools would lose about $30 million in the upcoming school year, and school districts across the state wouldn’t be able to use nearly $500 million in taxes that voters have already approved.

So what might happen to funding for rich districts (and poor ones) is still very murky.

“Will wealthy districts be impacted?” said Jake Vela, senior policy analyst for the League of Education Voters. “Essentially, the answer at this point is really unknown. We don’t really know how it’s going to play out.”