Senate Republicans and House Democrats have unveiled their education funding plans; negotiations are under way and the clock is running.
Both proposals include controversial details, but the Senate’s plan to eliminate the reliance on local levy money to finance schools and teacher pay hits the bull’s eye.
This piece of the fix, at the very least, must be preserved.
If not, we could find ourselves right back in violation of the Supreme Court-ordered McCleary decision someday down the road.
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We are in this dilemma because for far too long the state failed in its constitutional duty to amply fund K-12 education. To make up for that failure, communities that could afford it, used local tax money from school levies to bridge the difference.
That meant that students in wealthier areas could get far more resources than those in poorer school districts.
Senate Bill 5607 includes a course correction that would bring balance to the state. School districts would retain some authority to use local tax money for extra programs, but teacher salaries and other basic school needs would be covered at the state level through a property tax swap.
Under the GOP plan, a new property tax of $1.80 per $1,000 of assessed property value would be imposed statewide, raising about $2 billion in revenue over the next two years.
But by eliminating local levies, taxpayers in many communities would see a reduction in their property tax bill.
For example, in Pasco, it would mean a cut in property taxes of $2.52 per $1,000 of assessed value. For the owner of a $200,000 home, that would be a yearly savings of $504.
In Kennewick, property owners would see a reduction of $1.64 per $1,000 of value. In Richland, it would be a drop of $1.51 per $1,000.
The decrease would mean $328 less in Kennewick property taxes and $302 less in Richland for the same $200,000 home.
Admittedly, property taxes likely would go up in certain wealthy school districts under the Senate plan, and that presents a challenge for lawmakers representing those constituents.
But still, the poor schools have suffered for years under the current system and it needs to change.
In addition, the Senate plan would do away with the current education funding model that uses the number of staff members in a “prototypical school” to determine how much money school districts receive.
Instead, money would be invested on a per pupil basis, providing at least $12,500 for each student. More money would be allocated for students in special programs.
The GOP plan provides an equitable, consistent dollar amount per student and ensures the state is meeting the requirements outlined by the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
That’s not the case in House Bill 1843.
While certain goals in the plan are admirable — like significantly boosting teacher pay — the proposal does not outline specifically how that would be accomplished.
Democrats estimate they will need about $1.6 billion in new revenue over the next two years in order to fully fund basic education and pay for salaries. But they have yet to come up with a way to raise the money.
This makes us wonder if the court would approve such a sketchy outline.
House leaders have suggested a new carbon tax or a new capital gains tax. They also suggested ending tax breaks and changing the state’s business and occupational tax system.
But without a firm financial plan — and with no provision preventing school districts from using local money for basic education — we fear the House version will not fix the underlying equity issue, which is what the McCleary case is all about.
With a court deadline looming, the Legislature can’t afford to offer a proposal that doesn’t connect all the dots.
The Senate bill includes controversial changes that are unpopular with the teacher’s union — including merit pay, forbidding teacher strikes and allowing some people to teach without certification.
How the legislative give-and-take goes remains to be seen. But bringing equity to the state is at the crux of McCleary decision, and the Senate bill comes closer to addressing that than any other proposal we have seen so far.