WA still not fully funding basic education and public schools
Contrary to two state Supreme Court rulings, some school districts in Pierce County with lower land values are still struggling to pay for basic education. From a social justice perspective, this is shameful. From a legal point of view, the way we fund schools may well be (still) unconstitutional.
In 2023, state lawmakers are expected to address this issue. If they don’t, the Washington Supreme Court should consider whether the state is complying with its 2012 McCleary decision.
In that decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that relying on local levies to fund basic education was unconstitutional, because adequate funding of basic education is the primary responsibility of the state. ‘State.
To comply with the state Supreme Court ruling, in 2017-18 the state spent billions of new dollars on education. Washington Governor Jay Inslee celebrated by saying, “Finally, our legislature is providing the funding needed to cover the basic costs of our K-12 schools.”
Just five years later, however, Washington is getting back to where it was, with some districts — especially property-poor ones — relying on local levies to fund the expenses the state would have to pay.
How did we spend billions more on education and then end up almost in the same place?
Here’s the simple answer: The state agreed that the new funds could also be spent on teacher raises, and once that happened, the teachers’ unions demanded it.
I have absolutely no problem paying teachers well, and the unions were just doing their job. The contracts were also the result of collective bargaining, so what’s the problem?
Well, we have to understand in these salary negotiations that principals and largely voluntary school boards are sitting across from negotiators who are fully aware that if they drag out talks until August, the pressure on the school board to open classes on time increases. During the summer of fresh money in 2018, strikes, timed to coincide with the start of the new school year, were authorized in some districts of the state. To avoid strikes, some districts opted for increases above 15%. This set the bar very high.
To complicate the situation, the state gave school districts with higher property values more money for salaries than property-poor districts because it costs more to live and work there. These “regionalization” funds are well-intentioned, but they are also an approach that forces poorer districts into unequal competition for teachers. For example, for every dollar the Bethel School District receives, the schools in Tacoma and Gig Harbor receive $1.12. Auburn receives $1.16. As the first day of school approached in 2018, the only way for asset-poor districts to be salary competitive with neighboring districts was to use the state’s new money plus their levy dollars. .
The teachers’ union boasted that its “state school district members negotiated historic pay increases.”
The problem is that after the “historic wage increases”, in some of the poorest neighborhoods there was not enough money left for the children.
It was not true everywhere. In some asset-rich districts, a portion of negotiated wage increases could be covered by regionalization funds received from the state. In poorer districts that did not receive these funds, levy dollars were needed to pay for basic education.
In Pierce County, for example, school districts spend millions of local levy dollars to fund special education. Bethel alone spends about $4 million on special education, which the state Supreme Court ruled should be paid for by the state.
Next September, a committee will give the governor, the public school superintendent and the legislature recommendations on how to address this issue. These recommendations must be bold. November voters should elect lawmakers who have the backbone and spleen to ensure the state funds basic education for all children.
Here are three simple but politically difficult recommendations that would go a long way toward achieving a fairer funding system.
- The state should provide each district with the same fixed dollar amount per student. This amount must be considerably higher than necessary to finance basic education sufficiently.
- Limited upward adjustments to the per pupil amount should be made for special education and for areas with high remediation needs and high housing costs. However, the cost of housing adjustments should be based on large metropolitan areas (such as Puget Sound), not on a district-by-district basis.
- The legislature must cement the maximum amount per student that can be spent on basic education salaries and limit the use of local levy dollars to fund programs and positions not covered by the definition of basic education of State.
Washington is almost alone in having the overriding constitutional obligation to amply fund basic education. This is an obligation that we are not yet fulfilling for all children. We must.
If we don’t, maybe the state Supreme Court should order compliance again.
Bill Bryant, who served on the Seattle Port Commission from 2008 to 2016, ran against Jay Inslee as the Republican candidate in the 2016 Washington governorship race.