Overview

30 years ago, Washington State’s system of financing education was ruled unconstitutional for the same set of conditions that have re-emerged and exist again today.

  • In the McCleary case two years ago Washington courts ruled that school funding was unconstitutionally inadequate. Since then the recession has resulted in even more reduced funding. On January 5th 2012 the Supreme Court upheld McCleary in a landmark ruling. They reminded us again last month that they’re serious with the comment “the overall level of funding remains below the levels that have been declared constitutionally inadequate.”
  • The percent of the total funding for schools coming from local levies as is back up to near historic highs. This level of dependence on our current local tax system was found by the court to be unreliable and results in uneven distribution around the state.
  • Serious structural problems remain from the last time the funding system was updated, about 30 years ago: some districts are funded more richly than others for no discernible reason, regional cost differences have grown over that time, and technology has become a more significant cost for districts.
  • We have made no significant progress in closing the achievement gap between the privileged and the economically challenged. In the last few years the gap has widened. This moves beyond being an education problem to being a civil rights problem.

The combined effects of these factors have led us to a funding system which is increasingly unstable and unreliable, and ultimately, unsustainable. This sets the stage for a replay of the types of devastating levy failures that crippled the system 30 years ago, and is a way for us to commit economic suicide as a state.

It’s important to approach this seriously as we only get one chance a generation to make things right. Being thoughtful doesn’t mean that we can delay endlessly. Despite many protestations to the contrary, this session the Legislature needs to comply with the court order and make steady progress towards completely funding “basic education” by 2018. There are 5 school years between now and 2018, and “steady progress” means we get about 2/5ths of the way to the complete solution in this biennium.

A structured view of the problem and possible solutions follows, with some parts of the argument to be fleshed out as we move through the Legislative session.

First, figure out the cost. The legislature created a task force (the Joint Task Force on Education Financing or JTFEF) to work through this issue in the interim. This group had a divided result, but the range of cost analyses was from about $3.5 billion to $4.5 billion per biennium. More details can be found here.

Second, identify other funding problems that need to be fixed at the same time. A short list of the critical problems looks like this:

  • Imbalance between local and state taxes. The current system depends more on unreliable local levies than prudence (or the supreme court) allows.
  • The last “fix” to the system in the 1980s resulted in numerous artifacts “grandfathered” in. Teachers in some districts are paid more than in others, distributions to districts for classified or administrative functions are somewhat capricious, the levy capacity of otherwise similar districts varies by almost a third… These differences are unfair and violate the constitution’s requirement that we have a “general and uniform” system.
  • While the arbitrary differences in funding between districts are bad, not recognizing and dealing with the very real regional cost differences in hiring staff results in serious distortions. While it may not make sense to have the state pay teachers differently based on where they work, the issue has to be addressed.

Third, consider options to pay for it. Anything having to do with money measured in billions generates great arguments. The constitution calls for “ample” funding, but doesn’t say how to raise it. Nobody has a complete plan to pay for all the improvements that need to happen, but the basic options are:

  • Find the money somewhere else in the budget. Since the current budget grows more quickly than the state’s revenue stream, this is a difficult option unless you are willing to stop doing something else completely. There is no option to pay for the education increases “out of growth.”
  • Raise new revenue. The Joint Task Force on Education Funding identified a number of sources to consider, and many legislators have more ideas. Their report can be found here.
  • Recognize that since districts are currently using local property tax levies to pay for some services that the state should be paying for, do a revenue neutral “swap” of local for state revenues. This is a complex proposal that only addresses part of the problem: the services that local districts are already paying for. It doesn’t fund anything new, like all day kindergarten or lower class sizes. For more on the levy swap, click here.

The final solution is likely to be a combination of the options listed above. Of course, there are some policy changes that will result in higher student achievement that many members would want to implement at the same time we are making large changes in the funding system. This will also be a spirited discussion.

The set of pages that comprise this section refer to a common set of external resources, links for which can be found here.

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