The Legislature should reform how the state pays for basic education and how it compensates its teachers. The Supreme Court demands change.
WASHINGTON’S Constitution calls for the state “to make ample provision for the education of all children” and establish “a general and uniform system of public schools.”
In 2012, the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision ordered the Legislature finally to make good on those promises. And this is the year to do it. That is, if lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can think bigger than the problem, muster the courage to say no to their traditional friends and make the transformative decisions. Many Democrats align with the powerful teachers union and support tax increases; many Republicans don’t want to eliminate local district control and take a dim view of any new taxes.
This is the time for creative leadership, not knee-jerk partisanship.
As the Supreme Court noted, the state has ceded its responsibility to local school districts that raise money from their local taxpayers. The state contributes only around 70 percent of total funding, with the rest coming from federal and local sources. The quality and resources at public schools varies widely because some district voters approve higher levies, creating a haves and have-nots system — the antithesis of what the state’s founders had in mind.
Lawmakers should restructure the way public schools are funded and put the system on track to give all students access to high-quality, uniform schools. If they don’t, the Supreme Court could drop the hammer on the Legislature for failing to act on that key part of McCleary.
Both the state Senate and House budget proposals are close on the amount of new spending needed for K-12 education — between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion. The trick is answering the court’s structural funding demand.
Last week, several leaders proposed different approaches to remedying school districts’ overreliance on local levies to pay for basic education costs. Those voter-approved taxes are supposed to pay for supplemental programs and services, but instead have been used to pay for operating costs, such as teacher compensation.
What the proposals have in common is that they all propose a new salary structure for teachers and reducing local levies.
Senate Democrats released a proposal that would lower the amount of money districts could raise with levies and replace the difference for teacher compensation dollar for dollar with state funding. State Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said the proposal would lower taxes for 98.7 percent of Washington taxpayers because it relies on funding from a proposed capital-gains tax that would apply to high-income earners. That new revenue source might be palatable but only if, as Hargrove said, it would be spent only on basic education.
State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, proposed what he called a “revenue-neutral” alternative. His bill would lower the amount of property tax that taxpayers pay to their local districts and increase what they pay to the state. That proposal includes setting up a new health-care insurance program for school workers that Dammeier said would cost the employees less than the current system.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn’s proposal calls for statewide bargaining of teacher salaries with local cost-of-living adjustments and for school employees to become part of a statewide health-insurance system. That proposal has merit since the state would be ponying up most of the money.
Currently, unions and local districts bargain over pay and benefits resulting in significant variances. Paying teachers more or less in different parts of the state makes sense. But in some cases, one district pays teachers thousands more than a bordering district.
Another proposal would commission a study of the local levy system and make recommendations next year.
That’s not good enough. Lawmakers should confront the challenge now. The status quo undermines the future of thousands of children. And the Supreme Court, which already has held the Legislature in contempt for not making progress, is watching.
Restructuring teacher compensation and school finance might leave some districts and taxpayers unhappy. But, the Legislature has a unique opportunity to enact reforms that are long overdue and could vastly improve Washington’s schools.