EVERYONE in Olympia is talking about how important education is these days. With a mandate from the state Supreme Court, the McCleary v. State ruling puts policymakers on the hook to find a way to fully fund basic education by 2018.
Some say this can be done with existing resources, some say it can be done through reform. One thing is clear: From the time children enter the classroom to when they join the workforce, investments beyond McCleary’s requirements are a must. And that will take more financial resources than the state has now. The state will need to raise taxes, close tax breaks and extend current taxes.
It’s not only our schools that have suffered in the face of round after round of spending cuts in recent years. Health care, nutrition, job training and other foundations of stable families and a strong economy have suffered, too. Any teacher will tell you that kids who are hungry, sick or in distress can’t learn.
In other words, the Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling is the floor of what it will take to invest in our kids and our state’s future. Not the ceiling.
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The Joint Task Force on Education Funding estimates that we will need $1.4 billion in 2013-2015 just to meet the true costs of basic education for all children. That number will rise to $4.5 billion by 2017. The state does not have enough revenue now to cover those obligations, much less the investments we need to make on top of that.
While the Washington State Constitution makes funding basic education the state’s “paramount duty,” it is not our only duty. We also have a duty to make sure that kids come to school prepared to learn. What happens in the family will, without a doubt, influence a child’s success in the classroom.
If parents or other caregivers don’t have enough income to meet basic needs, their children will be harmed. If parents don’t have the resources to find and keep a job, their children will be harmed. If parents have health problems that can’t be treated, their children will be harmed.
Without a comprehensive approach to funding all areas of the budget, our economy will be harmed as well. We need investments in health care, job training, affordable colleges and universities, public safety and all the other things that help families and grow the economy. We need to make sure that learning begins at birth with quality child care and early education, and that kids who fall behind can catch up.
As Washington state becomes increasingly diverse, it is crucial that we address the inequalities faced by children of color and those from low-income families to ensure a better education for all our children.
None of this can be done without new tax revenue.
Fortunately, lawmakers have no shortage of options. A new state excise tax on proceeds from stocks, bonds and other capital gains would raise about $700 million a year in new revenue. Policymakers could also extend tax increases passed in 2010 that would generate $630 million in the next budget cycle but are set to expire in June. They could also close tax breaks that don’t create jobs or have a demonstrated public benefit.
They could also lift the current cap on property-tax growth, which is far too restrictive and has greatly reduced the resources available to Washington state’s schools.
Existing tax revenues are wholly inadequate to fund the court’s school-funding mandate and the other investments we need to build on it.
The alternative is deeper cuts to all other areas of state spending besides education — the very things that will help grow our economy and give all children the chance for success. That would be shortsighted and self-defeating. We can do better.
Remy Trupin is executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a fiscal think tank that focuses on creating prosperity for all Washingtonians.