Washington’s Legislature should move quickly in 2018 to address the last element of the McCleary school-funding reforms. This is needed to help voters make informed decisions on levies in the Feb. 13 election.
Voters across the state of Washington are facing a quandary in early 2018.
In dozens of school districts on Feb. 13, they will be asked to approve substantial new levies for school operations and maintenance.
Lawmakers could help voters make a more informed decision by quickly addressing a shortfall in school funding that was flagged by the state Supreme Court.
The effect of that shortfall can be debated, but it’s still a question mark hanging over the state’s laudable effort over the last five years to improve school funding and outcomes.
That question adds to uncertainty about whether the state is finally, and truly, providing ample funding for basic education, as required by the state constitution and the McCleary lawsuit.
Legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee said the job was done in June, when they finished a school-funding overhaul.
The linchpin was ending the state’s reliance on locally raised taxes to fund basic education — with maintenance and operations (M & O) levies. The funding reform actually makesusing local levies to fund basic education illegal, as of September 2019.
Yet school districts across the state, including at least 37 in the Puget Sound region, are asking voters to approve or extend M & O levies for two to four years. They include Lake Washington, Bellevue, Mercer Island, Northshore, Everett, Shoreline and Tacoma.
Some are also proposing bonds for school construction, which is a separate issue.
Complicating this scenario further is that many Puget Sound homeowners are already likely to see an increase in their state property taxes in 2018, due to the Legislature’s school funding overhaul. The state property tax increase is intended to replace local taxes now used for basic education.
In the next six weeks, districts should explain carefully to voters how much M & O levy funding they need to continue providing basic education, and specify whether and how they believe the state is falling short. They should also be clear about which levy dollars are for enrichment activities.
And, this is important: School boards also must pledge to voters that they will halt levy collections for basic education when state funding comes through.
Districts are in a tough spot.
They are in the midst of a difficult transition to a new and untested funding system. Some don’t believe the Legislature got it right and are lining up funding while the kinks are worked out.
It doesn’t reassure anyone that the Legislature appears like it decided to miss its own deadline for full funding of basic education by the start of the 2018 school year.
Until that goal is met, the state Supreme Court is maintaining jurisdiction over the McCleary case. It ruled in October that the state has mostly fulfilled its school-funding obligations, except for the delay providing that remaining $1 billion. In a ruling that provides a helpful review of the McCleary saga, it ordered lawmakers to provide that funding to schools in time for the 2018-2019 school year.
Legislative leaders say the funding is coming, but it’s just being phased in.
Either way, that discrepancy, plus grumbling in some quarters that schools are getting plenty already, creates more uncertainty for districts and voters.
As a result, voters in February must make a leap of faith based on incomplete information.
Voting no requires faith that the Legislature and Inslee are amply funding basic education as promised.
A yes vote requires faith that the school district will collect only what’s needed for basic education until state funding is in place.
For voters, this will be like driving into a fog bank with only one flickering headlight.
The Legislature can illuminate the path, and help voters make a more informed decision on Feb. 13, by promptly addressing the remaining McCleary business in the first half of their 2018 session.