Lawmakers shouldn't open the door back to the old inequitable way of funding Washington schools.
In a head-spinning development, many of the school districts and education advocates like the Washington Education Association that sued the state over woefully inadequate K-12 funding are now begging lawmakers to return to the old way of paying for schools that left too many students behind.
Lawmakers who actually desire an excellent education for all students, no matter their ZIP code, should stop this effort right there.
Seattle, Olympia and Highline districts, among others, want to continue to rely heavily on local taxpayers to pay for education the state should.
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In 2012, the Washington Supreme Court ruled the state was abdicating its duty to amply fund public education for the state’s 1 million schoolchildren. The court also denounced the state’s overreliance on local levies to pay for basic education.
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Over years, lawmakers debated what would solve the failings of the system and scrounged billions more dollars for education. Last year, the high court ruled the Legislature had a reasonable plan, though still a work in progress, to fully fund basic education.
The plan’s promise was that, while the state property taxes would increase, local tax levy authority would be lowered. Local levies are now capped at about 12 percent of a district’s state and federal funding.
Senate Bill 5313 would shatter that promise. The bill narrowly passed a key Senate committee with a 6-5 vote. Sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, the bill would send the state down the path of recreating the same budget system marked by inequity, allowing local levies to soar back to a level of about 20 percent of state and federal funding.
That is far too high, even though it is lower than the irresponsible increases recently proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state’s schools chief.
Yes, the state is still underfunding some aspects of public education, most notably special education. However, the solution is not breaking the Legislature’s promise. Rather, lawmakers should add more state funding for education, not allow more local taxes for schools.
“If school districts still have common funding needs that aren’t being met by the tens of billions of dollars already going into K-12, we should be talking about how to address those at the state level, and leave the local-levy limit in place,” said state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia.
Amen. Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, gets it too. In committee, he crossed party lines to vote against the levy lift. Mullet argues the proposal breaks the Legislature’s commitment that local levies would decrease this year to ease the pain of last year’s large state property tax increase in the Puget Sound region.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee is expected to hear the bill Monday. Chair Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, was a key negotiator of the McCleary solution and has expressed strong reservations about lifting the levy lid. She should stop this bill.
Lawmakers should find a better, more direct way to help the districts that are struggling to make ends meet under the new system and not just give well resourced districts a way to become even better funded.
A promising proposal from the Washington Association of School Administrators would give more state dollars to 115 school districts that will have less money for the 2019-20 school year because of last year’s legislative action. WASA says it will cost about $123 million to bring those school districts to the break-even point.
The legislative proposal to lift the levy lid seems most likely to benefit Puget Sound area districts, like Seattle, which need to find extra money to support the generous salary increases they approved during contract negotiations last summer. In a February levy, Seattle voters said they would be willing to pay more in local taxes if the school district can persuade the Legislature to raise the levy lid.
Lawmakers must fix real problems in education funding. They should not return to a state education system of haves and have-nots, where too many children will be left behind.