Thursday, May 26, 2022
May 26, 2022

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In Our View: Equitable school funding again builds concern

The Columbian

A decade after the landmark McCleary decision from the state Supreme Court, school funding might be prominent in the news again in 2022.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday in Wahkiakum County Superior Court claims: “Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our democracy. Our state government’s failure to amply fund the Wahkiakum School District’s capital needs, however, does the opposite. It makes our public schools a perpetuator of class inequality.”

The suit claims that small school districts are less likely to pass construction bonds and provide modernized schools for students. Wahkiakum County, located along the Columbia River west of Cowlitz County, has about 4,000 residents and fewer than 500 students in the public school district; by comparison, the Evergreen and Vancouver districts in Clark County each have more than 23,000 students.

School districts rely on the passage of bond measures —property tax increases — for capital expenditures. Both Evergreen and Vancouver have passed bonds in recent years, leading to a flurry of construction to build new schools and renovate existing ones.

As an example, the lawsuit claims that in the affluent Mercer Island district, property owners would pay 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to raise $30 million. In Wahkiakum, owners would pay nearly $4 per $1,000 of assessed value to raise the same amount. That would be an additional $1,400 in property taxes on a $350,000 home — roughly the median price in the county.

Because of that, voters in small school districts are understandably reluctant to pass bond measures, which require a super-majority of 60 percent. The result is that students in those districts are less likely to have buildings that are technologically and seismically updated.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter: The Washington state constitution says “it is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” It likely will eventually be up to the state Supreme Court to determine how that applies to school construction — not only for Wahkiakum but for all districts.

If this sounds familiar, that is understandable. In 2012, the court unanimously ruled in McCleary v. Washington that the state was not fulfilling its paramount duty in regards to operating funds for school districts. With districts depending on levies to fund operations, there was a glaring gap between wealthy districts and poor ones.

Six years later, the Legislature finally approved adjustments to the state’s property-tax system, adding about $6 billion a year for school funding. Seattle attorney Tom Ahearne — the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the McCleary case — is representing the Wahkiakum district in the new suit and said justices might think, “I don’t know if we want to give them another big bill.”

But regardless of whether the issue gains traction in court, lawmakers should pay attention to the situation. Equity in school funding is not a demand for equal outcomes but a question of equal opportunity. A student’s ZIP code should not determine whether or not their school building is seismically sound or whether it has updated amenities and adequate space for learning. National studies routinely have demonstrated that increased spending does not affect test scores in affluent areas, but it does boost scores in higher-poverty districts.

All of that is relevant as lawmakers ponder how best to perform their paramount duty.

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