Washington’s smaller, less affluent neighbor, Oregon, has made major gains in K-12 investment, while Washington lags behind. That is a competitive disadvantage.
FIVE years after the state Supreme Court’s ruling on the McCleary lawsuit, Washington lawmakers are still tangled up in debates about arcane funding formulas and revenue patches. They have made so little progress that school funding advocates held a candlelight vigil earlier this month.
But during Washington’s post-McCleary stagnation, Oregon — a neighbor and competitor for talent — has not stood still. A recent report by the National Education Association estimates that, in 2017, Oregon is spending $12,161 per K-12 student compared to Washington’s $10,119.
So, Oregon, a state once lampooned in the Doonesbury cartoon series for its school funding woes, now outspends the home state of Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks and Costco by 20 percent per student.
With considerably better funded schools, Oregon has an attractive economic development card to play — especially along the state border. That adds urgency for Washington to break the logjam and get its fiscal house in order.
Oregon’s recovery plan was first articulated by its business community. In December 2010, early in the recovery, Oregon’s business leaders advanced a three-part budget strategy: grow the economy, slow health-care and corrections spending, and invest the dividends in education.
Long, sustained economic expansions usually favor the Pacific Northwest, and this one has been no different. Robust growth in the technology, food-and-beverage, and health-care sectors created good-paying jobs. Oregon’s income-tax revenues took off and contributed to the best revenue recovery in the nation.
Meanwhile, public management had a good six-year run. In 2013, state lawmakers enacted hard-fought criminal justice reforms that ended the growth in prison beds. Oregon negotiated a smart deal with the Obama administration that delivered almost $2 billion in federal innovation funds, curbed per capita health-care costs and helped launch the Affordable Care Act.
Strong revenue — together with those health care and corrections savings — fueled investments in full-day kindergarten, teacher training and class-size reductions. Two governors, and dozens of skilled legislators, on both sides of the aisle deserve credit for executing the business-led strategy.
Oregon’s economic run, while impressive, pales next to Washington’s. The Seattle region has transformed into a global powerhouse with one of the hottest job markets in the nation. Washington’s 3.7 percent growth rate in real gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016 was the largest among all states and was significantly higher than the rate for the U.S. as a whole.
Per capita income — all of Washington’s income divided by all of Washington’s people — has swelled to $54,076. That’s almost 8 percent above the U.S. average and a full 19 percent above Oregon’s level — $45,436.
But, Washington’s booming economy hasn’t translated into a robust revenue recovery. A tax system over-reliant on regressive, slow-growing consumption taxes — sales and gross receipts — is to blame.
The upshot: Washington has been out-governed by its smaller, less-affluent neighbor to the south. Oregon’s made tougher choices, cut better deals, and found more common ground in this recovery. Now, they sit right next door with the same amenities: mountains, rivers, beaches, high deserts, good beer, great wine, thriving cities and charming small towns. And, if they execute with their K-12 investments, they’ll soon have better schools.
That is an economic threat.
The good news is there is broad recognition that Washington’s public education system is underperforming. In a state with so many successful people and businesses, the failure to provide high quality education to all students is unacceptable.
The fact that Washington’s southern, less economically-advantaged neighbor is spending 20 percent more on public education is cause for alarm, and for action. Gov. Jay Inslee should not sign a biennial budget that continues this trend of underinvesting in K-12 schools. It is time for Washington’s capable budget negotiators to give up sacred ground and make a deal that seriously invests in public education.