Reforming Washington’s education-funding system should be seen as a tremendous opportunity. Lawmakers have a chance to make history and restore credibility by getting this done promptly.
WASHINGTON lawmakers convening in Olympia on Monday have a remarkable opportunity.
If they can overcome the Legislature’s usual dithering, posturing and partisan bickering, they will be the leaders who finally fix the state’s biggest problem: its terribly underfunded and inequitable public schools.
Although policymakers have spent years working on this problem and are nearly done — really, they’re within yards of a touchdown — the incoming Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee should be the ones to make this historic step.
Every Washingtonian will be affected, whether or not they have kids. Property taxes will be modified so that the state covers the cost of basic education, instead of the current mix of state and local funding sources that varies by locale.
This change is forced by the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling. It demands the state meet its obligation to fully fund schools — its paramount duty under the state constitution.
Although some lawmakers balk at the court pressure, this should be seen as an opportunity to fix a jumbled levy system that doesn’t work well for schools or taxpayers.
This is hard work for legislators. Some will have to explain themselves to constituents upset about higher taxes and spending.
With investments come the opportunity to improve schools’ efficiency and outcomes. Improvements must be made along with funding adjustments — the public must be assured its money will be well spent.
Yet lawmakers don’t have time for lengthy debates about re-imagining schools. They’ve done so for years. Now they’re in the final stage of an overhaul that’s been progressing since 2012 when the Supreme Court began its oversight.
Leaders of both parties are committed to getting this done.
All acknowledge that some taxes will increase to pay this overdue bill. The policy question is who should pay.
Republicans favor property taxes that put the additional burden on residents and businesses. Democrats would have others pay: the state’s richest residents, through a capital-gains tax; polluters, with a carbon tax; and service businesses, through business and occupation taxes.
Democrats’ early proposals are overreaching. As first proposed by Inslee, their flurry of new taxes raises much more than needed for schools and other top priorities such as mental-health services.
But at least Democrats have proposed specific ideas to consider and discuss as the Legislature convenes. Disappointingly, Republicans have so far failed to produce publicly a detailed proposal, reflecting diverging views within their caucuses.
This divide was revealed last week by the bipartisan education-funding task force. After seven months of work, it was supposed to present a basic-education funding proposal by Monday, giving the Legislature a head start.
Democrats offered a plan echoing Inslee’s budget proposal. They didn’t make hard choices about which particular taxes are needed but still presented something for the public and peers to consider.
Republican leaders didn’t yet have signoff from their caucuses and declined to share a plan they’ve been developing internally. They are challenged by the departure of several key members with education-funding knowledge.
Even so, floating at least part of their plan would have advanced and balanced the initial discussion, and avoided giving the appearance that Republicans aren’t as committed.
The task-force failure hurts the Legislature’s credibility. It should have finished this work last session. Instead, it punted to the task-force, saying more data and time was needed. Ultimately, it only pushed hard tax questions beyond the November election.
This raises concerns about whether the McCleary task can be finished in the coming months.
There’s now one way for lawmakers to regain credibility — and earn the gratitude of current and future Washingtonians: agree on a fair and equitable plan to fund the quality schools the state owes every one of its students.