The Legislature won’t finish its education reform work until it addresses the state’s overreliance on local levies, despite suggestions to the contrary from new superintendent of public instruction Chris Reykdal.
THE new superintendent of public instruction this week tried to help end the Legislature’s education budget standoff with some constructive ideas, including some ways to meld Democrat and Republican approaches. However, lawmakers should ignore one part of Chris Reykdal’s proposal: Continuing to use local levies to pay a significant portion of the cost of education.
In the 2012 McCleary decision, the Washington Supreme Court made it clear that the state must end its overreliance on local levies to pay the state’s education expenses. Locally raised property taxes don’t meet the court’s requirements for education funding because they are neither dependable nor regular.
“Reliance on levy funding to finance basic education was unconstitutional 30 years ago in Seattle School District, and it is unconstitutional now,” the justices wrote in the McCleary ruling.
Some school districts across Washington acknowledge as much as a quarter of current teacher salaries are paid with local levy dollars. That reveals a number of problems in the way our public schools are funded. For one, only school districts with a high value local tax base and generous voters have that extra cash at their disposal. For another, unless this practice is stopped now, another McCleary lawsuit on inequity in public school funding could pop up within the next decade.
To satisfy the court — and end that inequity — the Legislature must cut local levies dramatically, make sure that money is used only for extras like sports uniforms or playground equipment and fully fund the salaries of teachers and other school employees with state dollars.
Lawmakers have made two dramatically different proposals on how to deal with local levies. The leadership in the Republican-controlled Senate has proposed eliminating them for about a year and replacing local levies with a flat rate state property tax. Later, the Senate proposal would allow limited levies be used for extras. Leadership in the Democrat-controlled House has proposed leaving levies alone and limiting how they can be spent.
The answer falls somewhere in between. The details of how to accomplish that is up to the Legislature, but as Gov. Jay Inslee said earlier this week, lawmakers have only one month left to cut a deal.
Reykdal’s other education ideas for the short-term, which he presented at a news conference on Wednesday, are a welcome addition to the education-reform debate. He proposes ways to get more money to struggling students and schools. He suggests improvements to attract and keep good teachers, especially in high-poverty communities or in schools in need of turnaround help. In addition, and perhaps most important, Reykdal also proposed some bold ideas for the longer term. The variety of ideas include longer days and longer school years, and a re-imagining of high school.
The state schools chief says, “I’m trying to have a conversation about life after McCleary.” Lawmakers should solve McCleary so they can join that conversation in earnest.