Opinion Columns & Blogs

Legislature needs to fix education funding leak

In 2007, lawmakers increased education funding 15 percent on a per student basis, and at the same time the Washington Education Association led a lawsuit alleging that the state underfunded education.

How could both be true? They were true because the WEA broke the school funding system with an insidious law it fought for decades earlier.

When lawmakers were addressing education funding in 1981, the state began paying the actual payroll costs for teachers, including increases for longevity and credentials. The state also banned local schools from agreeing to union contracts that negotiated wages higher than the state salary.

School levies were also capped by state law.

In 1987, the WEA won a new salary law loophole allowing levy funds to be used to supplement state wages for additional “Time, Responsibility and Incentives,” or “TRI.”

What happens when the state caps levies as a revenue source but opens districts to snowballing payroll costs in collective bargaining? Levy-funded special programs, extracurricular activities and building maintenance all get cannibalized to feed the escalating payroll costs demanded by union officials.

The Freedom Foundation recently completed a “Grading School Contracts” study showing that most school boards are failing to stop unions from diverting resources from student services to employee wages.

Three times the state has documented the problem of levy-funded wage increases with levy lids in place. Most recently, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction assembled data showing that, in 2012-13, $641 million was spent from levy and state matching funds to add to wages of state-funded teachers receiving an average compensation package of $61,783.

Earlier OSPI analysis showed that the amount required to fund growing wage enhancements increased by nearly 10 percent per year.

The need to cut local services to pay for union contracts is how districts can end up with greater scarcity even though the state increased funding by 15 percent.

This problem led the state’s Basic Education Finance Task Force to recommend an end to the law allowing levy-funded wage enhancements in union contracts, but the Legislature has not implemented this solution.

As lawmakers finish the bulk of the education funding task, they must not ignore the need to end union contracts’ ability to saddle districts with escalating payroll costs for which families receive no new services.

Local schools could afford a range of new or formerly-provided services if union officials’ grip on school spending priorities was loosened.

But if the Legislature does not make this change, then taxpayers will receive few improvements for the billions of additional dollars. New money will ultimately be diverted, and schools will again appear underfunded.

We will be back where we are today trying to solve this problem if lawmakers do not close this loophole.