To reach a compromise on a school funding plan, lawmakers should choose the best parts of all the plans on the table in Olympia.
Lately, I’ve been dreaming about standing in front of a whiteboard to walk lawmakers through a possible compromise on the school funding dilemma. Not because I think they can’t figure it out on their own. After covering the McCleary school funding case for more than a decade, I’m just that frustrated with their lack of progress.
At this point, it’s mostly a matter of choices, all contained in the various education reform plans before the Legislature. By choosing the best parts of each plan, lawmakers could cobble together a path toward answering the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, make Washington public schools more equitable and give more kids an education that prepares them for college or career.
None of the current proposals, from either houseor either party, would satisfy the court or the voters, on its own.
Here’s what’s on my virtual whiteboard.
All agree more money should be pushed toward struggling schools and students. The Senate Republicans, the House Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee take different but positive approaches toward this goal. I would like to see a more specific plan that follows the money into the places it is needed and then checks back to see if that money is actually making a difference.
The Democrats in the House keep the prototypical school model and build from there. That way of paying for schools is part of the Supreme Court’s decision on the McCleary case, and it gives every school, big or small, a baseline of funding. But it doesn’t do enough. The McCleary solution should also take inspiration from the Republican push toward a student-centered model and send more dollars to schools with more kids living in poverty and toward programs like special education.
The Republicans offer an interesting approach for the levy system. After eliminating local levies and moving basic education expenses into the state budget, the Senate proposal would allow school districts to ask voters for new levy dollars as long as a state agency first certifies the money will be used for enhancements, not basic education.
Both the governor’s and the House Democrat’s plans make an effort to address individual school needs for social-emotional support for students, by including money to hire more school counselors and parent engagement coordinators. Schools that address the social and emotional needs of students have better academic results, research shows.
All the proposals increase starting pay for new teachers, which is essential to attracting and keeping them.
The Senate Republican plan calls for a vote of the people on any education tax plan approved by the Legislature.
What if the voters say no? Will that mean the Legislature automatically gets another year to work this out? That is not going to work.
The House plan does not cut local levies while adding to the state budget for basic education. If the state is paying the full cost of basic education, why should local taxpayers continue to pay the same local levies? That would perpetuate inequity.
Two of the three proposals have shared the details about how they would be funded, but neither the Senate Republicans nor the governor offer budgets I would vote for. The governor wants to add too much to the state budget, with $4.4 billion in new taxes over two years but not just for education.
In addition to raising property taxes in the Seattle area to pay for cuts elsewhere, the Republicans who control the Senate have proposed cutting dollars going to early learning and programs for the poor to pay for K-12 education. That doesn’t make sense. The Democrats who are the majority in the House have yet to share their budget. Let’s hope it’s creative and smart, but we won’t know until next week.
Washington’s local levy system is a mess. It’s not fair that the levy rates vary from district to district and that some places seem to pay more than their share of public-school costs. But it also doesn’t make sense to replace the existing crazy system with a new crazy system that raises taxes in the central Puget Sound area to pay for property-tax cuts elsewhere, as the Republicans in the Senate have proposed.
We need more guardrails around education spending so taxpayers will know that the children who need extra help are really getting it, and so the state isn’t sent back to court to argue about the same issues in another decade.
There can never be enough focus on results. The court decision, at its heart, is about the inequitable way Washington educates its children. The McCleary decision gave lawmakers a clear opportunity to fix the funding, while working on improving outcomes. Lawmakers can keep working but this is the year to really make a difference.
Courage, lawmakers, you can do this. If you need some help, give me a call. I’ll bring my white board.