In our view: Fair School Funding

Yes, more cuts are necessary, but the state calls it levy ‘equalization’ for a reason

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The state constitution makes public education the “paramount duty” of Washington’s state government. Levy equalization makes public education fair. It also makes taxation for school funding fair. School districts with abundant commercial and industrial property boast higher taxable wealth, and thus have lower property tax rates. To keep up, other school districts — such as those in Clark County, with more residential property — are forced to impose higher tax rates.

Levy equalization uses a complicated formula to distribute state revenue in ways that more equitably answer the “paramount duty” mandate. Gov. Chris Gregoire proposes to dramatically reduce levy equalization funding as one solution to meet a projected $2 billion shortfall in state revenue. (Legislators will meet in special session after Thanksgiving to address that budget challenge.) Holding levy equalization funding absolutely immune to budget reductions would be unrealistic as the state ventures deeper into this shared-sacrifice journey. But what Gregoire is proposing — basically an overall reduction of 50 percent — would extract a greater sacrifice than is reasonable, particularly from school districts in Clark County.

According to a story last week in The Columbian, although the overall effect would be a halving of levy equalization funding (by about $150 million) for the 2013-2014 school year, the impact would be much greater on some school districts. That’s because of the complicated formula that would be used. In fact, Vancouver, Camas, Washougal and Green Mountain would lose their entire equalization levies. That would mean an $8.4 million impact to the Vancouver district. In the Evergreen, Battle Ground, Hockinson and La Center districts, levy equalization funds would be cut in half by the governor’s proposal.

Consider two points. First, Vancouver Public Schools and seven other districts in Clark County are defined as property-poor in our state. Second, in this proposal by the governor, only the poor districts would sacrifice. Would Washingtonians ever want classrooms to become more crowded only in property-poor school districts? Of course not. Would taxpayers expect graduation standards to be lower — or higher — only in rural school districts? Of course not. That’s why making severe cuts in levy equalization would be unfair not only to students, parents and teachers, but also to taxpayers.

In a recent meeting of Southwest Washington educators and legislators, state Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, expressed another caution against severe cuts in levy equalization funds: “If we arbitrarily reduce or eliminate levy equalization, there will be litigation, which isn’t good for anyone.” That’s true.

Others will point out that levy equalization is not protected by the state constitution. That is true as well. But the definitions of “public education” and “paramount duty” remain very much in dispute through many court cases.

Gov. Gregoire eloquently describes her dilemma and the logic in sharply cutting levy equalization funds: “If not that, what? We’re already cutting health care. … I have people coming to me saying, ‘Don’t cut domestic violence (services)’ … ‘Don’t cut supervision of people on parole.’ I agree with every one of them. This is a burden that everyone must bear.”

Certainly, no one should doubt the severity of this challenge. But pulling the entire rug out from under some school districts but not others — as this one proposal for levy equalization would do— deviates too drastically from the shared-sacrifice concept.

Gov. Gregoire and the legislators should not forget why lawmakers long ago embarked down this “equalization” road in the first place.