Tweaks are needed to the state’s ambitious new education-funding plan. The Legislature should make these improvements but resist temptation to make substantial changes before the plan is fully implemented.
Washington’s Legislature needs to adjust its bold reform of the state education system.
Glitches were inevitable in such a massive undertaking.
At the same time, lawmakers must resist calls to make substantial changes to the landmark school-funding plan they passed in late June and that has yet to be fully implemented.
In particular, they should reject a surprising request by Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal to eliminate a key accountability provision in the new law.
Prompted by the landmark McCleary decision, the new state law intends to reduce its reliance on locally raised taxes. Basic education is the state’s job.
Toward that end, the law calls for Reykdal’s office to verify the legality of school levies before they are placed on ballots, starting in 2020. This was done to ensure that the state and schools don’t backslide and end up back at square one.
But Reykdal is now asking the Legislature to repeal this section of the law, saying it’s a hassle for districts, and audits should catch misuse of levy money.
When you’re just getting started, you don’t recreate the wheel or start removing spokes.
Regular audits failed to prevent the state and districts from dropping the ball on school funding over the past 40 years.
Vetting levy proposals should be seen not as a burden but as an opportunity for Reykdal’s office. His staff would consult with and support districts as they work through a new funding approach.
Levy reviews will also provide transparency and hold the Legislature accountable by revealing any gaps in state funding of basic education before they are spackled over with local-levy dollars.
To understand the import of Reykdal’s request, consider what the Legislature accomplished over the past four years.
As required by the state Constitution, and forced by the McCleary lawsuit, Washington is now transitioning to a system in which basic education is entirely funded by the state.
The linchpin is ending the use of local levies for basic education. Relying on levies for essential school needs creates inequity, with some kids receiving lesser education than those in more affluent or supportive communities.
Accountability measures are needed to ensure that Washington doesn’t revert to an unconstitutional system providing unequal opportunity to the 1.1 million children in the state’s public schools.
In the McCleary plan, this was accomplished in part with a provision requiring Reykdal’s office to review levy proposals before they are placed on the ballot, to ensure they won’t be used for basic education.
Levies are still allowed for supplemental “enrichment” programs, such as sports and band.
This distinction must be clear to voters, who need to know they aren’t paying twice — to the state and the district — for the same program of basic education.
When the kinks are worked out, this should be a far better education-funding system for students, schools and taxpayers. Funding should be more predictable and reliable, outcomes should improve and there will be fewer excuses for district underperformance.
The transition isn’t easy, though, and requires patience.
It also requires faith that fixes will be made promptly, so student schooling doesn’t suffer. That’s a big ask for school districts and voters who know the Legislature procrastinates and missed its self-imposed deadline to fully fund schools by the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
Districts are particularly wary after they identified glitches in the initial funding plan, including a big shortfall in special-education funding. Reykdal estimates $366 million is needed over the next biennium to cover this shortfall.
Still, these are problems that can be fixed without dismantling the framework or removing policy elements that hold it together.
Voters and educators are watching to see if the Legislature is able to continue making improvements and has the conviction to stick with a plan that was decades in the making.
Nobody said it would be easy to rebuild the state’s education-funding system. But it’s worth the effort and temporary disruption to improve outcomes and end inequities for students across the state.