In Our View: Backing From Levy Cliff

Legislature makes bipartisan progress, but final school funding answers overdue

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Progress is finally being made in Olympia over the thorny issue of school funding.

After threatening to hold the so-called “levy cliff” as a bargaining chip to the bigger debate, the Senate reversed course and passed an extension on a bipartisan vote Wednesday afternoon. The House followed suit on Thursday morning, and Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill.

It was a close call, however. Beginning with the next school year the cliff would have limited the amount of money local school districts could collect from voter-approved levies. One estimate pegged the loss to Washington schools at $358 million per year.

We’ve spent decades working our way into this swamp and years trying to wade out of it.

Over time, state support for public education has eroded, leaving local districts to rely more and more on voter-approved levies that are used to fund both academic and extracurricular programs, teacher salaries, essential positions and more. The situation is clearly unequal, with wealthy districts able to provide more support than poorer areas of the state. To channel former President George W. Bush, some children are being left behind.

The bill passed this week puts off the cliff until 2019. By then, the thinking is the Legislature will have implemented a plan to fully fund basic education in all of the state’s public schools.

It’s still going to be difficult work, and it would be surprising to see it happen by the end of the regular legislative session, which is April 23. This year’s conclave appears destined for a special session — which, unfortunately, has been the norm in recent years and certainly not “special.”

But at some point, lawmakers are going to need to come up with an education plan that passes the scrutiny of the state Supreme Court.

They were, after all, instructed by the court in 2012 to pay for basic education rather than force school districts to rely on levies. Some progress has been made, but not enough. There is a reason the Legislature is being fined $100,000 a day while being held in contempt by the court — a fine that has accumulated to more than $57 million.

Eventually, we presume, lawmakers will reach agreement on how best to provide additional school funding in the neighborhood of $3.5 billion from the state. Republicans have put forth a detailed plan that would include a statewide property-tax levy and that, they say, would cut property taxes for a majority of residents when local levies are eliminated or reduced. The idea provides a template for negotiations and is a reasonable starting point. Democrats have proposed tax increases but have been short on details.

In truth, having a bipartisan Legislature with the chambers controlled by competing parties is beneficial for the people of Washington. The political wrangling and the legislative give-and-take eventually will result in the best possible plan, one that is born of compromise and negotiation.

Taking away the threat of the levy cliff is a promising sign that the best possible education funding plan will emerge this year, gain enough support to pass the Legislature, obtain the governor’s signature, and pass the scrutiny of the court.

But that does not mitigate the frustration of citizens as lawmakers continue to delay a process that should have been completed three years ago or even five years ago. Lawmakers made progress last week. But as this year’s Legislative session creeps along, the clock is ticking.