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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Dec. 6, 2023

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State lawmakers struggle with ‘paramount duty’ of funding education

There's little progress despite Supreme Court mandate to fully fund K-12 education, and $100,000-a-day fine for failing to do so

By , Columbian Political Writer
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Carter McCleary was 7 years old when McCleary v. Washington state was filed in 2007.

Five years later, Washington’s Supreme Court weighed in on the case, calling on lawmakers to meet their constitutional “paramount duty” and adequately fund the state’s public school system.

More recently, the state’s top court went further, holding the Legislature in contempt for failing to make adequate progress on its mandate in the so-called McCleary case. When that didn’t work, the court this summer resorted to a fine: $100,000 for each day the Legislature remains mired in partisanship, unable to solve the state’s school crisis.

“It feels like a standoff, with the kids in the middle,” said Stephanie McCleary, the plaintiff.

Lawmakers embarked on “listening tours,” traveling the state to hear from education leaders. The governor convened a task force and offered to call a special legislative session if there was a breakthrough.

Yet a deal that would satisfy both political parties and the state’s top justices, and, most importantly, amply fund the state’s public education system, appears as elusive as ever.

“I still hope and hold out hope they will find a way to do this,” Charles Wiggins, a Supreme Court justice, told The Columbian’s editorial board. “We don’t want to be in a combative role. We want to be in a role of saying, ‘We encourage you to do this and move this process along.’ ”

Members of both political parties have agreed the system is fundamentally flawed. Yet, as the state’s one million children grow up — including Carter McCleary, now a junior in high school — legislators continue to receive failing marks across the board. No doubt, lawmakers will convene the 2016 legislative session in January with a full course load.

History

Washington state’s Constitution has an unusual clause: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

The constitution makes it clear: It’s the state’s duty to pay for equal education for its public school students.

The McCleary case was not the first time the court weighed in on the state of public schools. A case in the late 1970s capped the amount of local levies school districts could rely on at 10 percent of what they received from the state and federal government. The levy money, which comes from local taxpayers, was meant to be used only for extra programming, such as new band uniforms or an outdoor field trip, not to fund basic education, such as teacher salaries. Over the years, as the state gradually sent fewer dollars to schools, the levy cap eroded and districts relied more on that pot of money to boost teacher salaries and benefits, pay for transportation services and, in some places, update textbooks. In some districts, levy amounts have increased to more than 20 percent of the budget. In other words, levy money is being used to fund basic education, shifting the burden to taxpayers and, the court would rule, violating the state’s constitutional duty to fund state schools in an equal manner.

Geography

The Camas School District, which covers most of Camas, some of west Washougal and a large swath of land north of the two cities, collected $2,460 in levy dollars per student from local taxpayers for the 2014-15 school year.

Next door in the Evergreen Public Schools district — which serves parts of east Vancouver, Five Corners, Orchards and a small part of northwest Camas — that figure is about $1,696 per pupil.

A student’s ZIP code, advocates argue, should not determine the amount of money being spent on their education. The state does send property-tax-poor districts extra money as part of a complicated levy equalization formula. But the state’s high court has said that levy inequity still exists. One of the looming tasks facing lawmakers will be to reduce districts’ overreliance on local levies.

“Reliance on levy funding to finance basic education was unconstitutional 30 years ago … and it is unconstitutional now,” justices wrote in the McCleary decision.

Later, justices elaborated: “Districts with high property values are able to raise more levy dollars than districts with low property values, thus affecting the equity of the statewide system. Conversely, property-poor districts, even if they maximize their local levy capacity, will often fall short of funding a constitutionally adequate education.”

The reliance on local levies ballooned during the recession. As the state struggled to fund local schools, the community stepped in and filled the gap with levy money. The state allowed school districts’ levy dollars to increase as a stopgap measure during the economic downturn.

What resulted was a system in which some districts’ textbooks are so outdated, they list Bill Clinton as president. In some areas, schools struggle to find certified staff to teach, where in other places they are turning away qualified teaching applicants.

But what’s been called the “levy cliff” is quickly approaching. In 2018, the provision that allowed districts to rely heavily on local levies sunsets, which means the Legislature could decrease the amount districts can raise through local levies.

The levy issue, said Frank Ordway, a lobbyist with the League of Education Voters, is “the heart of the inequity in our funding system,” but also “the most fiercely defended source of money” for schools.

“It has no strings attached,” Ordway said of levy dollars. “Every dollar from Olympia has a string attached, in terms of how you can spend it and what you could use it for, and school districts are really complex entities and levy money … provides school districts with the flexibility they need to run their enterprise.”

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Mathematics

Gov. Jay Inslee has called fixing the inequity in the state’s public school system a $3 billion problem. Others have estimated it could be as much as a $6 billion problem.

During the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers funneled $1 billion toward education-related needs. In the last legislative session, lawmakers directed $1.3 billion toward the state’s schools to help pay for all-day kindergarten and lower class sizes.

The court called it insufficient and slapped the Legislature with the $100,000-a-day fine.

Not all lawmakers agree that changes to the levy system are part of the overall solution. If they do strike a deal on how to rely less on levies, lawmakers will have to find funding to supplant the money currently being used to pay for a myriad of items, including teacher’s salaries and benefits.

Further complicating the funding issue is a projected $500 million shortfall for the upcoming two-year budget cycle.

Political science

The politics swirling around any possible McCleary fix could be considered the state’s biggest hurdle. Both sides of the aisle have to be willing to dip into political capital reserves.

There are profound political challenges, Ordway said.

Recently, Inslee proposed two ways to boost school funding: a cap-and-trade proposal and a capital gains tax. Revenue from both, the Democratic governor argued, could be poured into schools districts’ coffers. In the Republican-controlled state Senate, the proposal was a nonstarter.

Another idea floating around is to set a statewide teacher salary. This would move teacher salary negotiations away from the district level to the state level, in an attempt to make it more fair regionally. The state’s teacher unions have pushed back against this idea, making it contentious and potentially a difficult political push for Democrats.

In November, voters complicated matters by approving Initiative 366, backed by conservative political activist Tim Eyman, which will require lawmakers to change the constitution to require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to increase taxes. If legislators fail to adopt the two-thirds rule, the state sales tax would decrease by 1 cent per dollar, which would reduce the state’s overall revenue picture. “The solution is to fund education, if it’s the paramount duty, it’s what they do first,” said McCleary, the plaintiff. “The question is how you fund the other things, which aren’t unimportant.”

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Columbian Political Writer