As the Legislature gets closer to a budget deal ending the McCleary school-funding saga, it must ensure local levies aren’t used to fund basic education.
CONFOUNDINGLY, the Washington Legislature is entering yet another special session to finish a task — paying the full cost of the basic education in schools — it should have completed years ago.
That said, legislative negotiators report they have made progress in recent weeks and a budget deal appears to be taking shape.
In the final deal, the state must amply fund K-12 schools with state funding as it promised in the McCleary lawsuit. It cannot use local levies for basic education. That would not stand with the Supreme Court, which is holding the state in contempt partly on that very issue.
To avoid a government shutdown, they must reach agreement next week. A core group has worked hard to find common ground, increase school funding and resolve the unconstitutional inequities in the K-12 system.
Consensus appears to be growing for a funding plan that relies mostly on property taxes, merging local property tax levies into the state education property tax. Some areas of the state may see tax increases, but not as high as earlier proposals by the state Senate.
A menu of other new taxes, including a capital-gains tax, is largely discarded. The survivor would be taxing consumers on goods purchased online from out-of-state vendors. This isn’t a huge revenue source and it may face legal challenges, but it helps diversify state revenue.
The third component of the deal is more problematic — the continued use of local property-tax levies. Local levies cannot be used to fund basic K-12 education in Washington.
That is at the heart of the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling that found the state is failing to amply fund education, its paramount duty under the state constitution.
Because the state repeatedly failed to pay its school bill, districts had to raise monies with local levies. This overreliance on local levies created an inequitable system of education — it makes funding levels and the quality of education vary by ZIP code, creating vastly different educational experience for students.
It also makes education funding uncertain, because levies must be renewed by voters, who sometimes say no.
Now districts are wary of giving up local levy authority, in case state funding falls short.
To fix this problem, lawmakers must allocate enough state money to amply fund schools. They must simultaneously ensure that local levies can no longer be used to fund basic education, as defined by the Legislature. That restriction is critical to prevent backsliding and a repeat of the problem.
Local levies could continue to be used for other items besides basic education, such as sports and extracurricular activities. Levies should be listed as a separate item in the budget. Proceeds from supplemental levies cannot be rolled into the total funding provided for basic education.
The Senate’s initial budget proposal did a good job of making this distinction clear. It provided two projections for overall school funding: One assumed zero local levy dollars were available, and another showed the effect of supplemental levies.
Any local levies proposed must also be reviewed — before they are placed on a ballot — by the state auditor and superintendent of public instruction, to ensure they won’t be used for basic education.
Still, these agencies should be a second line of defense against the misuse of local levies and a return to square one.
The first line of defense should be the state budget and education-funding plan, which must explicitly fund basic education entirely with state money. The legislation must treat the potential revenue from local levies as a separate item, which does not count toward the state’s pledge of ample K-12 funding.
The end of this saga is in sight. We are looking forward to an education-funding solution that ends inequity, improves outcomes and can be easily understood and embraced by Washingtonians.