This year will be a test for local school districts and state government when it comes to funding public education. But it may end up being a trying time for taxpayers.
After the 2018 Legislature pumped billions of additional dollars into public school funding to meet the Supreme Court’s order in the McCleary case, local school levies will be back on the ballot as soon as next month.
Will the levy requests be, as promised, much smaller and more limited in scope now that the state is supposedly funding the basic education services formerly covered partly by local levy dollars? Or will there be a gigantic case of mission creep as local districts seek ever more money?
Already there are worrisome signs about the latter. In an interview with The Columbian’s Editorial Board last month, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said that local school districts should be freed from the levy lids imposed as a result of the increased state funding under McCleary. The governor argues that local school districts should be able to provide for students as the voters see fit.
Of course, that’s what led to the McCleary lawsuit in the first place. Relatively wealthy school districts easily passed school levies, lavishing local funding on public schools, while poor districts, even if they passed levies, had much less to give. Across the state, students were not receiving equal educations.
For an example of this, look no further than Clark County, where Vancouver Public Schools students enjoyed a bounty of programs, staff and facilities that the kids in Battle Ground could only dream about. Fair? Not in the court’s eyes. So the Legislature pumped $8.4 billion into schools. That’s more than $7,500 per student. As part of the bargain, local levies were supposed to be curtailed, paying only for the truly extras — band uniforms come to mind — and not, say, salaries of special education teachers.
The Seattle Times recently took Chris Reykdal, the state schools superintendent, to task for violating the spirit of McCleary by “quietly rubber stamping” a levy request by the Seattle School District that seeks approximately twice the limit of $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property valuation the law allows.
Reykdal responded by saying that school districts can’t forecast enrollment or levy authority a few years into the future, and that since the Seattle School District (a relatively wealthy district) lost $100 million in funding under the levy swap, voters should be given a chance to make it up.
He also counters that the revised law gives school districts the ability ask for any amount, but limits only the amount they can collect. However, the Times points out that if the Democratic-controlled Legislature should revisit the levy cap, as Inslee suggests, then Seattle property owners would end up paying more.
In Clark County, both Vancouver and Evergreen have asked voters for the statutory $1.50 per $1,000 maximum. However, Evergreen for the first time has added a technology levy that would add an estimated 31 cents per $1,000 above the $1.50 maximum, should both levies be approved.
And, of course, these come on top of the greatly increased state property tax to fund schools.
As the spring wears on, educators and legislators are going to be trying to give each other math lessons. It will be up to voters to decide who gets the passing grade.