Local View: Legislature must protect levy equalization
Sunday, January 23, 2011
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
— Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
This classic novel is set in Paris and London and illustrates the tensions, social unrest, and political upheaval before and during the French Revolution. As a former humanities teacher, it’s easy for me to point to literature for a lesson learned. The text is a story of the “haves” and “have-nots.” It is a moral allegory that teaches us about the importance of fairness and justice across all social classes.
According to our state constitution, Washington’s paramount duty is to “make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” Last year, the Legislature lifted the local levy lid and permitted school districts to seek additional revenue through a supplemental levy to offset state budget cuts. Given the impact of the recession in Clark County, now would be the wrong time for Vancouver schools to ask our patrons to do more. Similar to families, we must live within our means.
The erosion of state funding for schools and the shift of this responsibility to local communities, however, has widened the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Compounding this problem is the proposed reduction or elimination of state levy equalization funds for property-poor school districts such as Vancouver in the next biennium. The loss of levy equalization support would create even greater disparities.
Public schools account for 40 percent of the state’s general fund expenses and must take a share of necessary budget cuts. Those reductions should be distributed fairly across all 295 districts. Sixty-one school districts in the state do not receive levy equalization because they are property-rich or choose not to run local levies. Vancouver Public Schools receives $8.3 million in levy equalization, which is approximately 4 percent of our operating budget. Eliminating levy equalization would cut $370 per student, equivalent to approximately 105 full-time teaching positions or an increase in class size averages of nearly four students.
Cuts don’t sting equally
If Seattle Public Schools were to receive the same percentage of levy equalization as Vancouver schools, more than $22.6 million would be at risk, but Seattle’s property-rich tax base makes levy equalization unnecessary. Any cut in levy equalization means that students in Vancouver may not receive the same educational benefit as Seattle students. Eight of nine Clark County school districts would be impacted in similar ways. As an alternative, state budget writers could adjust existing funding mechanisms that affect all districts proportionately, such as staffing ratio formulas, to achieve the targeted savings.
State Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, and 59 of his Republican and Democratic colleagues recently sent Gov. Chris Gregoire a letter urging her to support levy equalization. They wrote, “In the districts many of us represent, the loss of levy equalization dollars would no doubt lead to a significant decline in educational opportunity for our students. This stands in contrast to districts with high property wealth, which would not be affected by these cuts. As legislators, we can certainly appreciate the difficulty of balancing a budget in these challenging fiscal times. Writing the upcoming state budget will not be an easy task, but doing it right is absolutely necessary for a prosperous future here in Washington state.”
Every student should have equitable opportunities in education, regardless of ZIP code. Maintaining levy equalization is the fair and just thing to do for all children in Washington state.
Steven T. Webb is superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools.