The state Supreme Court ruled Nov. 15 that the Washington Legislature is still out of compliance with constitutional “ample provisions” requirements litigated in the McCleary court case. Justices in effect are demanding $1 billion more be added to state education funding.
Under new education finance laws, school districts with the highest rates of poverty and highest rates of minorities are provided the lowest pay for teachers and lowest local levy funding. This creates doubts the state met its constitutional mandate in Article IX, which says: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”
It adds: “the Legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.”
The 2017 Legislature instead ended equal state salary funding and greatly increased its salary funding for the wealthiest districts. Some will receive 24 percent more pay than 200 other districts. Most King, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties’ schools get 18 percent more than the base pay.
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All Thurston County school districts get the base pay, except North Thurston which gets 6 percent more. Most Thurston County teachers could get up to 12 percent more pay working in Pierce County or 6 percent going to North Thurston.
Local levy tax rates are also cut to $1.50 per $1,000 valuation or $2,500 per student. Districts too poor to collect $1,500 per student from the new levy limit receive state matches to bring them up to $1,500.
King County’s richest districts will collect $2,500 per student from the local levy, 66 percent more than all but one of Thurston County’s school districts, which are limited to $1,500 per student and will suffer cuts in levy equalization.
There’s an increase of 82-cent per $1,000 valuation in the state property tax to help pay for the regional salary plan. Between the new state tax and cuts in local levies, all but one district in Thurston County gets a tax cut.
The new laws favor urban schools. Despite paying fairer and equal tax rates, students in poorer schools are denied equal educational services.
The new laws codify institutional discrimination against districts with the highest percentages of poor and minority students, leaving them with the lowest pay, lowest levies, and least capability of attracting teachers or providing equal enrichment and sports from levies.
The regional salary plan contradicts state commissioned research. The 2012 Compensation Technical Working Group considered research on teacher attrition, concluding state salary funding should be equal.
University of Washington research from 2005-2006 showed King County had the lowest teacher turnover. Central Washington had the highest attrition and highest minority and poverty counts. The salary plan widens the gap.
In “K-12 Finance and Student Performance Study,” the Legislative Audit and Review Committee shows the poorest districts have the lowest test scores and have teachers with the least training and experience.
In “A Review of K-12 Regional Cost Issues,” the Office of Financial Management found housing most costly in urban areas, but no evidence it led to greater teacher attrition. Yet, the state salary plan is based on housing costs.
The state Constitution requires a uniform system for all students, including equal opportunities to attract teachers. It doesn’t require equal buying power for teacher pay received. Higher salaries weren’t needed to improve attracting teachers in high-cost areas.
McCleary dealt only with “ample provision” but not the “distinction on account of race, color, or caste” or “uniform system” clauses in the Constitution. No judgment was given on equity.
The justices ruled the state needs another $1 billion for education. It should go toward equalizing salaries and equalizing all levies up to $2,500 per student.
How could Thurston County legislators support more taxes unless they also make educational services fairer?
Neal Kirby is a former state legislator in Washington’s 7th district, worked as a principal in Inchelium and Centralia schools for 26 years, and retired from the Centralia School Board. He is a member of the Olympia Mountaineers