Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Nov. 30, 2021

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In Our View: Funding Education

Clark County voters have done their job; now it’s time for Legislature to step up

The Columbian

Voters throughout Clark County on Tuesday demonstrated strong support for local schools at the ballot box. With a variety of levies and bond measures being considered, the public reinforced the notion that education forms the foundation for a prosperous future — not only for current students but for the entire community.

But now that voters have done their job, it is time for the Legislature to adequately perform its duties.

Locally, the biggest item on the ballot was a $458 million bond measure from Vancouver Public Schools. This enormous request could have been a tough sell, considering its size and the fact that it required 60 percent approval and that turnout reach a certain threshold. But district officials did a good job of making their case for why the bond measure should be approved and why it should be approved now — and voters passed it with flying colors. Vancouver’s bond measure will build three new schools and replace seven aging facilities throughout the district. Among the selling points for the measure was the fact that current low interest rates will save taxpayers millions of dollars over the decades-long life of the bond measure.

Meanwhile, Ridgefield voters approved a $78 million construction bond issue to help prepare for a rapidly expanding district, and replacement levies in the Camas, Washougal, Woodland, and Battle Ground districts also passed. The only school funding measure to fail in the special election was an item in Hockinson to install synthetic turf on the high school football field and reconstruct the running track.

In an era when many voters reflexively adopt an anti-tax stance, it was encouraging that local residents saw fit to pass these measures. This is particularly true for the levies, considering that these are merely replacements for existing levies that are due to expire. Failure to pass them would have left school districts facing budget cuts that would negatively impact the quality of education provided for students.

That is where the Legislature comes in as it grapples with fully funding public education. Lawmakers are tasked this session with adhering to the state Supreme Court’s ruling in McCleary v. Washington, which determined that the state is not living up to its constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” of providing for basic education in K-12 schools.

Because the Legislature long has fallen short in this regard, school districts have become reliant upon levies to provide for some educational basics such as teacher salaries or instructional materials. Originally, voter-approved levies were supposed to provide only extras for local school districts, but they have morphed into a foundational necessity that violates the state constitution.

That is the basic explanation behind the McCleary ruling, and local voters demonstrated an understanding of that issue by passing levies that are needed to keep local schools operating at a basic level.

Senate Republicans in Olympia have proposed a statewide property tax to fund schools and largely replace local levies. This would be a form of a levy swap that in essence would have wealthier districts subsidizing poor districts. There are some merits to the plan, adhering to the mantra that the quality of education should not depend upon a student’s ZIP code. Democrats, for the most part, have preferred ideas that would raise additional revenue — perhaps through a carbon tax upon industry or a capital-gains tax — rather than moving existing money around.

That, of course, is the simplistic explanation, and much work remains. But in the meantime, local voters have done what they can to support education in Clark County.