Washington’s public school system may need $3 billion or more in new money in 2017 to satisfy court rulings that the state is unconstitutionally failing to pay for basic education.
One big problem pointed out by the state Supreme Court is the impact of school levies, which voters in rich districts find easier to pass than those in poor ones.
The result? Rich districts can raise more tax dollars and offer higher pay to teachers, giving them the pick of the litter when it comes to hiring. This helps foster an unequal educational opportunity across the state.
The high court said in its landmark McClearly ruling in 2012 that this practice of relying heavily on levies is illegal under the state constitution. The court more recently held our Legislature in contempt for failing to deliver on the state’s paramount duty: to amply fund basic education across the board.
One curative plan, which was stillborn in the Legislature last year, could have solved the problem by stopping local districts from using property-tax levies to pay school salaries and benefits. In its place, the state would raise its share of the property tax to cover the full costs of compensation.
But the leading Senate Republican plan raised property taxes overall by $700 million a year. It’s no wonder that Republicans, the party of no taxes, ran from this plan.
And Democrats disliked that the GOP plan, in effect, shifted tax burdens from rural and tax-poor areas of the state onto higher-value lands in cities — in many cases, from Republican areas to Democratic areas.
The fact that this is a potential tax hike is one reason we think Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant is shying away from sharing details about how he’ll seek to fund basic education next year, if he’s elected. Bryant hinted that existing revenues might be enough.
Gov. Jay Inslee, the one-term Democrat, has fewer excuses for not offering up a more complete plan yet.
Inslee campaigned vigorously in 2012 against the property-tax shift, calling it a tax hike in half the state’s schools. But Inslee still has a better record on the issue than Bryant. The governor can say with a straight face that he signed budgets that raised K-12 funding by some $5.5 billion cumulatively over four years — budgets that Republicans and Democrats supported.
Moreover, Inslee proposed a few new taxes — specifically on carbon or on capital gains — as well as repealing a few tax breaks. Some of these tax code changes would have raised additional money for K-12 schools, but Inslee was shot down by the Republican-controlled state Senate and less than fervent support from House Democrats.
One option is to remove collective bargaining for wages and health care from the hands of local district unions and consolidate them at the state level, just as most public employees in state government are covered by agreements set at the state level. Then it would be up to the Legislature to find new resources — preferably something other than property taxes — to pay for the contracts.
Teacher unions dislike the statewide bargaining piece. Inslee likes support from teacher unions.
To no one’s surprise, both candidates came up short on education funding during their first televised debate in the governor’s race a week ago.
Bryant has been promising a funding plan for months. Inslee doesn’t seem to be promising.
Both must do better — as do candidates for the Legislature.