The state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision found current heavy reliance on local school levies has led to illegal inequities in basic education services for students in Washington.
The court ordered the state to fund basic education in accordance with the state constitution and reduce dependence on local levies. The reduction in use of local levies for basic education is referred to as the “levy cliff.”
Current law allows most schools to raise up to 28 percent more funds from local levies (with some grandfathered higher). In 2018, levy capacity is reduced to 24 percent. The Legislature is now in special session considering House Bill 2698 and Senate Bill 6353. Both would let levies remain at 28 percent for one more year.
School levy equalization for the first 14 percent levy will also be reduced in 2018 to the first 12 percent levy, cutting state funding by $52 million, including $5.2 million in cuts for Clark County schools. The bills postpone this cut, too, but leave the cut in place in 2019.
Inequities come about because school districts with a wealthier tax base collect far more per-student levy dollars with far lower tax rates than poorer districts. Seattle collected the 28 percent levy in 2015 for less than $1 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Evergreen Public Schools would need $4.64 per $1,000, almost five times Seattle’s rate. Evergreen receives $16.3 million in levy equalization to address that inequity.
Cuts in equalization in 2018 will cost Evergreen $2.3 million. They paid $3.65 per $1,000 assessment for a 24 percent levy in 2015, but would need to significantly raise the tax rate to recover $2.3 million in lost equalization money.
None of the Clark County schools collect the allowable 28 percent levy. Most hover around 24 percent. Only Green Mountain and Battle Ground lose from cuts in levy capacity to 24 percent. All others would need to raise taxes to recover lost levy equalization. Vancouver loses $1.3 million, Battle Ground $973,000, and Camas $205,000.
More than 100 school districts statewide collect levies below 24 percent due to high tax rates and lose nothing from a “levy cliff” drop to 24 percent, but would have to raise taxes to recover cuts in equalization money.
The inequity is shown by comparing Toppenish with Bellevue. Toppenish’s levy rate was 58 percent higher than Bellevue, yet Bellevue collected 90 percent more in per-student funds. Toppenish schools need 10 times the tax rate of Bellevue to raise the same per-student levy dollars. Cutting equalization makes it worse.
Toppenish is also 75 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Native American, and 25 percent bilingual. It’s a pattern in rural Washington. Labor-intensive agricultural and timber areas have large minority and poor populations, receive far less per student in local levy funds, and can only increase those funds with exorbitant tax rates on the poorest taxpayers.
Levy differences lead to poorer areas having larger classes, lower pay, higher teacher turnover, and fewer specialists, counselors, educational assistants, and administrators per student.
Equity in taxation and equity in education for the poor and minorities is addressed by levy equalization. HB 2698 and SB 6353 should be amended to eliminate any reductions in equalization.
Districts with the highest minority and poverty counts shouldn’t continue as second-class systems with far less resources to help teachers and their students.
Neal Kirby, founder and chair of the Committee for Levy Equalization, is a Centralia School Board director, former state legislator and retired school principal.