Some 100 school districts get to collect more money from taxpayers or pay their teachers higher rates than the rest of the state. Just another piece of the elaborate puzzle now confronting lawmakers on school funding.
From a distance, Washington’s education funding system appears to rest on one major pillar: All 295 districts get a baseline allocation of money from the state to pay for their teachers and other school employees. Seems simple.
But upon closer examination, the system reveals a myriad special cases and quirky formulas — such that it resembles a patchwork of jerry-rigged fixes more than a uniform system.
For instance, Olympia sets a basic schedule for teacher salaries. But 12 districts don’t have to play by those rules, and receive higher starting-pay allocations from Olympia than the other 283.
Education Lab School Stats
Above the levy cap
Of the state’s 295 school districts, these are allowed to have levies above the cap of 28 percent of a district’s basic budget.
Bridgeport, Tekoa, Roosevelt, Spokane, Kalama, Olympia, Riverview, White River, Orting, Cashmere, Fife, Snoqualmie Valley, Sumner, Puyallup, Lamont, Vashon Island, Enumclaw, Bethel, Kent, Lake Washington, Tahoma, Northshore, Auburn, Federal Way, Peninsula, Steilacoom, Renton, Highline, Eatonville, Franklin Pierce, Issaquah, Bainbridge, Lind, Boisfort, Skykomish, Selkirk.
Reardan, Bellingham, Quincy, Clover Park, Coulee/Hartline, Valley, Loon Lake, Columbia, Pullman, Colton, Pateros, Brinnon, Shoreline.
Mansfield, Ritzville, West Valley, Davenport, Palouse, University Place, Blaine, Lacrosse Joint, Dieringer, Conway, White Pass, Creston, Anacortes, Bellevue, Toutle Lake, Tacoma, North Franklin, Waterville.
Steptoe, Seattle, Harrington, Evaline, Cosmopolis, College Place, Damman, Mount Pleasant, Orondo, Carbonado, Tukwila, Green Mountain, Starbuck, Odessa, Mercer Island, Wahluke, Dixie, Centerville, Palisades, Garfield, Sprague, Shaw, Kahlotus.
Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction
At the top of the heap sits Everett, which has received 5 percent more state pay for its beginning teachers than anyplace else since the late 1970s.
The reason for this “grandfathered” privilege is that Everett — at the time home to Boeing headquarters — had traditionally offered better pay, and when Washington’s Basic Education Act passed in 1977 that higher-salary status was essentially codified into law.
Actually, there were nearly three times as many districts with similar privileges when the state’s basic-education law passed. Legislators have been chipping away at that group since 2006.
Getting more money from the state to pay teachers does not mean Everett nets the most money per student, overall. (That distinction belongs to Seattle.) But it does mean Everett and the other 11 districts get a higher rate of teacher pay than others.
Similar inconsistencies dog the local-levy system that allows school districts to collect extra money from homeowners to supplement their budgets.
Back in the 1970s, lawmakers limited the extra funds to 10 percent of a district’s basic budget, in part to create fairness, preventing wealthier areas from offering Cadillac-style schooling while poorer districts might only scrape by.
Yet, as with salaries, special allowances were made and the goal posts moved again and again.
In 1987, the Legislature raised the levy cap to 20 percent.
In 1999, it was hiked to 24 percent.
In 2010, lawmakers pushed the rate cap still higher, to 28 percent.
“Some might say that’s because it was an easier fix to raise the levy lid than do the heavy lift” of fully funding education, said Nate Olson, spokesman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Meanwhile, 90 districts — almost 30 percent of the entire state — were allowed to collect even more money because they’d long relied on local levies to cover their costs. Lawmakers agreed, though they promised that the special permission would be gone by 1982.
Today, several of those “grandfathered” districts can collect nearly 40 percent more than what the state and federal government provide. Seattle and Mercer Island, for example, are allowed to collect an extra 37 percent.
“The question that has to be asked is, how much is enough?” Olson said, pointing straight at the heart of the McCleary school-funding lawsuit now facing legislators in Olympia.