Washington voters strongly favor progressive policies, but the state’s school finance system is not progressive. Students from lower-income backgrounds bear the brunt of this inequitable system. More Washington citizens need to understand the flaws of the state’s K-12 finance model and start advocating for change.
In education finance parlance, a progressive state school finance system sends more funding to higher-poverty school districts. A spate of research shows for states to create equal learning opportunities, higher-poverty school districts require more funding per student than wealthier districts serving more advantaged students. Schools that enroll greater shares of English learners need additional supports to help educators identify and leverage the assets of emergent bilingual students.
And many other states have caught on. Around the country, state legislatures have passed laws to make their finance systems more progressive. Over the past 30 years, states have ramped up funding for K-12 schools, and state legislatures have targeted that funding to districts where extra dollars are needed most. Washington state has a constitutional obligation to fully fund education; the state must “make ample provision for education of all without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste or sex.”
Washington legislators should immediately make three key changes to the state’s finance system:
First, the state needs to substantially expand the Learning Assistance Program, or LAP. The LAP provides additional funds for school districts based on the percent of students classified as low-income.
For a recent policy brief, my colleagues and I combed through every Washington K-12 state funding account. We identified only two programs out of 33 separate funding streams that distribute state funds progressively — the LAP and Local Effort Assistance, which provides matching funds for districts that pass local levies.
While the state provides about $12,000 per student overall, higher-poverty districts receive about $600 per student in LAP funds, compared to $200 for lower-poverty districts. Tripling or quadrupling LAP funding would be a useful first step for making the finance system more progressive. To align with what research suggests is best practice, the state would need to increase LAP by a factor of at least 10.
Second, the state should expand the Local Effort Assistance program. Under Washington’s school finance system, the state funds 100% of what the Legislature deems a basic education. Districts are free to enact local levies, and these funds support “enrichment” programs, rather than basic education. But some districts are far better positioned than others to generate these enrichment funds.
Large disparities in local property wealth — gaps created in part by a history of unfair housing practices such as redlining and racial covenants — mean that some districts generate substantially less funding than other districts at the same tax rate. Yakima School District’s average property value is about $380,000 per student, while Mercer Island boasts $3.5 million per student. The disparity allows Mercer Island residents to benefit from lower property tax rates for schools: The district levies a property tax of $0.75 per $1,000, and generates the state maximum of $2,500 in enrichment funds. Yakima levies roughly the state maximum local property tax for schools of $2.50 per $1,000 and receives $920 per student in enrichment funds. Further analysis shows Yakima is part of a broader pattern, causing systemic racial and economic disparities in funding across the state of Washington.
The state needs to bolster the Local Effort Assistance program to provide robust matching funds. Currently the state only ensures districts can generate at least $1,550 per student in local enrichment funds, below the state average of $1,855. The poorest districts should be able to generate at least as much as the wealthiest districts if they choose to pass the same tax rates. In Texas, for example, the state matches enrichment levies up to the 85th percentile of district property wealth. This means the poorest districts generate the same local tax revenues for each 1% increase in local property taxes as the wealthiest districts in the state.
Third, the state needs to address capital funding, which covers new construction, seismic upgrades, ventilation improvements and the like. In Washington, local school districts are responsible for 87% of school construction and upgrade costs, while the state accounts for only 13% of funds. When school districts need to build new schools to address growing enrollment, or to comply with the state’s class-size reduction mandates, they must rely on local property tax revenues.
The Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction has a program to assist school districts with school construction and maintenance, but the program funds only a portion of construction costs, and not all districts are eligible. In many other states, such as Massachusetts, Ohio and Wyoming, the state funds a far larger share of capital costs.
Why doesn’t Washington have a progressive school finance system? One factor — the state’s Supreme Court case, McCleary v. Washington, was about adequacy (the amount of funding available), not equity (how funding is distributed). In other words, plaintiffs argued for expanding the pie, not distributing slices more equitably. While Washington has a “paramount duty” to adequately fund the public school system, the state lets more wealth and income go untaxed than most other states.
Washington residents should not accept an education system where districts receive equal funding despite large differences in need. To align the state’s progressive political ideology and constitutional language, state legislators need to create a progressive school finance system.