K-12 budget needs help for struggling students

The legislature has presented two budget proposals to fully fund K-12 education
The legislature has presented two budget proposals to fully fund K-12 education Staff file, 2016

Budget writers in the state House and Senate are digging in for a long fight over full funding of Washington’s public schools. How long legislators lob message bombs at each other before really negotiating is always a question.

The regular legislative session ends April 23, and it’s certain that the Democrat-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate will carry on a slow-motion battle well beyond that date.

Eventually one party or the other, or both, must surrender their prized policies to end the state’s 40-year failure on school funding. The state Supreme Court has said the state must fully fund basic education in K-12 schools by 2018.

Truly equal opportunity for students is a flag around which all could, and should, rally. This should come before the comfort of taxpayers or teachers.

The key is ending an unconstitutional disparity in state school funding and opportunity in this state. The high court is watching closely, seeking to enforce its latest ruling, in 2012, which said the state illegally and excessively relies on local property tax levies.

These local tax subsidies favor richer districts. They are able to afford more books and supplies and higher teacher pay than poorer ones that often struggle to pass levies.

In unfortunate ways, this disparity reinforces the well-known gap in student achievement. Students from more well-off families do better than those raised in poverty. Washington’s gap is the worst among 50 states, according to an Education Week report in December.

House Democrats released their nearly $44.7 billion budget plan last week. Senate Republicans released their $43 billion plan a week earlier. The House puts $1.9 billion more into K-12 schools; the Senate initially claimed to put in $1.8 billion, but a closer analysis by Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget gurus shows it is closer to $871 million — hardly enough to do the job.

Chris Korsmo of the Campaign for Student Success, a coalition that formed last fall to bring attention to this gap and the inadequacy of state funding, rightly points out that none of the budgets proposed does enough to target the opportunity and achievement gaps. The 30-member coalition includes the League of Education Voters, which Korsmo leads, as well as groups representing racial minorities, a charter-schools advocacy group and a state chapter of Stand for Children.

The coalition wants more resources targeted directly to the most vulnerable students. We agree. If we can't help students from impoverished homes to complete high school and more, we are further locking them into intergenerational poverty.

In some ways, the Senate budget addresses this more directly. It provides a base amount for each K-12 student and adds more, depending on a student’s learning needs and challenges. Schools would get extra money for students who are from economically disadvantaged households, students who are gifted, students who speak English as a second language, and students who are developmentally disabled.

Unfortunately, the GOP model fails to deliver enough money and makes it harder for districts like North Thurston, Olympia or Tumwater to pay their more experienced — and therefore more expensive — teachers.

Also unfortunate is that the Republicans rely on a large increase in the state property tax to replace the local tax levies and on cutting the social safety net. This approach results in a shift of property tax burdens to areas with a rich tax base, such as Seattle, which is represented by Democrats, while reducing the taxes in GOP-friendly rural areas.

By contrast, Democrats raise about $3 billion in new revenue, which is used to eliminate only a fraction of local levies. Democrats also avoid slashing programs that help impoverished families, and they provide pay raises negotiated by public employee unions.

The House approach also sends money to schools based on the mix of teacher experience plus extra allotments for certain remedial programs.

To pay for it all, Democrats want to enact a capital gains tax on sales of appreciated stocks and bonds. They also propose higher business-occupations tax rates for service businesses, which don’t collect sales taxes; they carve a larger tax exemption for small businesses. This approach makes the state tax system a little fairer.

The reality is that new revenues — other than a statewide property tax hike — are needed. Also needed are assurances that local levies are reduced and that funds actually boost achievement.

It would help if the state fully paid salaries for basic education-related teaching and did so in a way that recognizes higher housing costs in central Puget Sound and that encourages skilled teachers to take challenging assignments in high-demand subject areas.

There is middle ground. If partisans step back and see this forest for the trees, they can find it.