Another year has passed, but Washington’s school funding challenges remain. In 2012, the state Supreme Court found the state’s system of funding K-12 schools unconstitutional and inadequate.
Frustrated by the Legislature’s slow progress since the landmark court ruling in the McCleary case, the justices found lawmakers in contempt of court last year. In August the court fined the Legislature $100,000 a day — money that is to be set aside in an account for schools.
But lawmakers also are frustrated, having authored budgets since 2013 that put record amounts of new money — more than $2.3 billion — into the public school system directly in response to the McCleary case.
A big piece of the problem yet to be solved is the unequal way schools are financed. Almost 30 percent of school funding comes from local, voter-approved school levies, and this favors tax-rich districts with supportive voters who can pay teachers more and also outfit schools with better technology.
One solution is to end the local levy support of basic education outright by shifting responsibility to the state for all teacher and school staff pay and benefits related to basic education.
A few ideas for doing that surfaced from both parties in the Senate near the end of the first legislative session in 2015, but no agreement was reached.
One concept was to shift the local school tax levy on property to the state share of the tax. But that effectively shifts the tax burden to largely Democratic urban areas with high property values and gives rural areas dominated by Republicans a tax break. This idea went nowhere.
A proposal by Gov. Jay Inslee to raise money for schools from a capital gains tax and a tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels also died last year.
This year, Inslee’s supplemental budget plan was silent on this critical issue. Inslee said the high court wants a plan for fixing the school funding issue, and that how to pay for it will wait for 2017, when the Legislature passes a new two-year budget.
But earlier this year, the governor set up a task force of eight lawmakers and his budget director to hash out a plan that might satisfy the court by showing the justices they have a road map for getting the problem solved.
This might include an end to locally bargained pay contracts for K-12 teachers. The possibility of statewide bargaining for basic pay and benefits remains a question.
Also in question is how much lawmakers need to satisfy the court and the state constitution’s clear mandate for “ample” funding of basic education. It could be in the neighborhood of $3 billion to $4 billion in each two-year state budget.
The work group reconvenes Monday, and the governor’s budget office says there is hope some kind of agreement can be crafted before the Legislature’s 60-day session begins Jan. 11.
We hold out hope, but we don’t dare hold our breath. We need a fairer tax system and one that raises enough money to pay for schools. But getting there will ultimately require agreement on new taxes and possibly a new deal with teachers unions.
Both issues are radioactive in an election year.