Efforts in the Legislature to remove a lid on local school levies represent a step backward for school funding in Washington. Rather than invite a return to inequitable funding and open the door for lawsuits, lawmakers should provide state funding where necessary and adhere to a hard-fought agreement.
Following the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling in McCleary v. Washington, lawmakers took five years to hammer out a compromise in which the state would fully fund public K-12 education. That compromise limited local levies to $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value or $1,500 per student, whichever is less.
That was the promise lawmakers gave to taxpayers in 2017 — state property taxes would increase in order for the Legislature to live up to its “paramount duty” of funding basic education. In exchange, local levies would decrease. The adjustments would prevent inequalities between districts that were at the heart of the McCleary decision; local levies had been used to fund basic expenses such as teacher salaries, creating disparities between wealthy districts and poor districts.
Now, school districts want the Legislature to keep both state and local property taxes high. Senate Bill 5313 would allow districts to tax up to $2.50 per $1,000 in assessed value — a 67 percent increase from the current law — or $2,500 per student, depending on a district’s enrollment.
Passage of such a plan would put the state on the road to McCleary 2.0. It would invite the return of an unfair funding system that triggered the lawsuit in the first place and that had the amenities of a public education determined by a student’s ZIP code.
Meanwhile, the process behind SB 5313 points out an additional problem with school funding. The Senate Ways and Means Committee adopted an amendment to the bill that would limit the extra money teachers receive on top of their base salary. Union leaders characterized the amendment as a “poison pill” that will lead to the demise of the bill, and Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, who proposed the amendment, said: “I think it’s dead. I think the unions came out so aggressively against it.”
That leads to questions about the power of teachers’ unions and about whether lawmakers are more concerned with the well-being of educators or taxpayers. While it is the job of unions to advocate for their members, it is the job of legislators to work for the betterment of the state rather than a particular constituency. If pushback from the union can scuttle a bill, then that bill likely is not a good idea to begin with.
And Senate Bill 5313 is not a good idea. Last summer, as teachers throughout the state went on strike, The Columbian wrote editorially: “A word of advice is warranted for school districts — Don’t bargain away money you don’t have.” Instead, districts throughout Clark County and elsewhere approved sharp salary increases; now district officials say they are facing budget shortfalls, a dilemma partly of their own making.
The solution to that dilemma should not be to allow for a return of outsized local levies. The solution should be for the state to provide additional funding to close gaps where necessary, such as for special education, but hold the line on local levies. The Legislature also should increase state assistance for districts that have trouble getting voters to approve levies, a provision that is included in the Senate bill.
Indeed, steps must be taken to bolster education funding. But lifting the levy lid would violate the spirit of the McCleary deal.