In Our View: Levy Swap Makes Sense

Legislature must make more progress in fully funding public education

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Now that the Legislature has increased funding for K-12 education and started moving toward compliance with a court mandate to fully fund public schools, we can all relax, right?

No, not at all.

Yes, lawmakers this year added $1 billion to the state budget for public education and, yes, that can be considered a step toward meeting the state Supreme Court's demand (from what is known as the McCleary decision) that the state meet its constitutional requirement to fully fund schools. But as a recent Associated Press story pointed out, this year's progress is considered only a down payment on what's needed. And at this point we can't help but think of Joe Zarelli, the Ridgefield Republican who resigned from the state Senate in May 2012.

Zarelli was one of the strongest proponents of a "levy swap," a revenue-neutral tactic that essentially would decrease local property taxes (levies) while increasing state taxes to provide a more reliable revenue stream for public education. Zarelli, the state Supreme Court, and others correctly argue that the current system of local school levies is unreliable and cannot be modified in ways that would meet the court mandate.

We would further point out — and taxpayers and voters in Battle Ground, for example, likely would agree — that school levies inflict an unfair polarizing effect on communities. With the presentation of each levy to voters, the fundamental duty of educating children is inflated into a hotly disputed political football.

A recent editorial in The News Tribune of Tacoma explained how legislators this year took the easy way out in meeting the court mandate: "The easiest fruit to grab was $354 million from the state's public works account, which provides local governments with cheap loans for local water, sewer and street projects. That's one-time money. The Legislature must come up with something better … ." And that's where the levy swap comes in: "Many districts are currently being forced to come up with 20 percent or more of their budgets from property tax levies that pass or fail depending on the mood of the taxpayers," the editorial continued. Of course, prevailing moods are no way to run our schools. As for the levy swap, taxpayers "as a whole would pay no more, though there'd be some shift from the wealthiest districts (largely in King County), to poor ones," many of which are in Clark County.

Gov. Jay Inslee appeared to oppose a levy swap during last year's campaign, but bipartisan support of the concept is brewing in the Legislature. Many of the politicians are afraid of being criticized for raising (state) taxes, even though they would be lowering other (local) taxes in the process.

The McCleary decision was brought to the state Supreme Court by the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools. The coalition's attorney, Thomas Ahearne of Seattle, has said: "It does not appear that the state's progress will be in line with the (state) Supreme Court's dictates," and the Legislature could receive another poor grade from the court later this year.

The best way to raise that grade next year is to stabilize education funding by creating a levy swap.