Washington legislators passed historic, needed changes to our state’s K-12 school funding system in down-to-the-wire votes Friday that avoided a government shutdown.
The bipartisan budget, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, promises $7.3 billion of new state money for public schools over four years. Much of that replaces local property tax levies at the center of a state Supreme Court finding that the funding system was unconstitutional.
The new K-12 plan requires the state to eventually pick up all costs for basic education including school salaries. Meanwhile, local property-tax levies will be capped at lower levels; use of levies is supposed to be limited to enrichment activities. Also, a new statewide health-insurance system for school employees will be created like the PEBB system for state workers.
In broad strokes, these are welcome achievements.
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But many details — including impacts on individual school districts — are still unclear.
Did legislators do enough?
Justices on the state Supreme Court get the last word on whether this approach fixes the school-funding system that the court found unconstitutional twice since 1977.
Most recently the court found in 2012 (in the McCleary case) that the state was failing to pay its share of basic education costs and that excessive local levies were subsidizing those costs.
Historically voters in richer districts were more able to subsidize salaries and other basic education costs than poorer districts. In some districts over 30 percent of revenue was coming from local property taxes.
If the new system is judged adequate, the court can finally lift a contempt order it had issued against the Legislature for previously failing to meet its school funding obligations.
If the K-12 funding plan fails to pass legal muster, lawmakers will have suffered an historic failure to meet their own schedule for full funding over a six-year time frame. Justices could take more drastic actions.
Budget writers think their work is good enough. Unfortunately they have more to do — this year and longer term.
They still must pass a capital budget for construction projects in every corner of the state and solve other thorny policy problems.
Longer term, they need to broaden the state’s tax base and make the tax code less punitive for those at the lower end of the economic ladder.
Lawmakers closed a few tax loopholes and expanded one for manufacturers, but mainly they shifted the property tax burden — leading to net reductions in many rural areas and higher burdens in property-rich urban areas like Seattle.
Applause is due, but lawmakers owe the state an encore.