Figuring out how to adequately fund Washington state K-12 public education in time for a court-imposed 2018 deadline will be no easy job for a newly-created legislative task force. Lawmakers face a multi-billion dollar onus to step up basic ed funding, as a result of the Washington State Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary case ruling.
It may be a bit more complex than it sounds, though. To some observers, the problem isn’t new money, it’s reducing the state’s reliance on local levies. They stress that technically, the state does need to put more money into basic education but that will largely be offset by reductions in local taxes. That those reductions will happen isn’t exactly a slam dunk, however.
The task force’s charge is to make recommendations so lawmakers can act by the end of the 2017 biennial budget session to “eliminate local school district dependency on local levies for implementation of the state’s program of basic education.”
The Opposite Of Transparency
But a predecessor group to the new K-12 funding task force, set up by Governor Jay Inslee last year, had trouble finding out just how much local levy money is being allocated to basic education in lieu of state spending.
The Inslee workgroup consisted of senators Ann Rivers (R-18), Doug Ericksen (R-42), Christine Rolfes (D-23) and Andy Billig (D-3). House members included representatives Pat Sullivan (D-47), Kristine Lytton (D-40), Chad Magendanz (R-5) and Norma Smith (R-10).
Many of the members sponsored legislation to extend the task force. That measure, SB 6195, was one of the first bills signed into law this session, on February 29.
How Much Are Local Districts Actually Paying For Basic Education?
When the Inslee workgroup formed the common assumption was that 90 percent of what school districts paid for salaries and compensation fell under basic education spending. However, when they went to examine that claim more closely they found nobody had the exact numbers available.
“It’s essential we know how much locals are paying for their basic education,” Rivers said. “It’s probably the one most important part of the bill.” “We have no idea of the target we’re shooting for,” Rivers added.
Figuring out how much school districts rely on local levies to fund basic education could play a pivotal role in the fight over proposed new taxes, especially if the final bill for McCleary turns out to be less than assumed.
Part of the problem is that using local levy monies for basic education costs is technically illegal under state law.
Additionally, task force members said what falls under basic education and what counts as a legitimate use for local levy funds isn’t always clear.
Accounting Records Shed Little Light, During High Court Case
The 2012 state Supreme Court decision criticized the state’s “reliance on local dollars to support the basic education program.”
The Court’s conclusion concerning the local levies relied on testimony from both state and local school district officials, including the director of School Apportionment and Financial Services for Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
The OSPI director told the court he believed local funds were used to pay for activities that “arguably fell under the State’s responsibility,” albeit he admitted that the actual annual accounting record for school districts “did not reveal whether schools actually used local funds for basic education.”
Another OSPI official told the court that it was “generally known that schools used local funds to fund basic education programs,” but likewise stated the “accounting records did not detail which funds went to which programs.”
The court also cited a July 2011 final report by the K-12 Levy and Local Effort Assistance Technical Working Group, which estimated school districts at the time spent a little more than half of their local levy money on salaries and compensation.
Inequity Problems Much Greater In Rural Districts
There’s no question an inequity problem exists among school districts, said Sen. Bruce Dammeier (R-25) while testifying at the January hearing. However, he added a summer tour of school districts through the state made it clear the inequity is much greater among rural areas.
One school official told state lawmakers on the tour they were so short of candidates for two teacher positions they ended up hiring individuals in their sixties, Rofles said.
As the state takes on more of the financial responsibilities, one solution being considered is to shift from local school districts to the state levy money that’s already going toward basic education. This is done by increasing the state property tax rate while capping the local levy rate.
A bi-partisan Senate bill last year called for this approach. SB 6130 sought to cover teachers’ salaries by increasing state funding but lowered the local levy rates. It added teacher compensation to the state’s definition of basic education and created a new teacher salary allocation model that adjusts for differences in cost of living standards. The bill also would enact accountability reform on how local levy money is spent.
However, the bill acknowledges that even if implemented additional revenue sources would still be needed.
Legislators are slowly re-orienting to the battle next year over “the mother of all budgets” in Washington.
Rivers said if legislators ultimately okay new revenues for education, “We have to instill as much confidence as we can in our voters that we’re spending their money wisely, that children are really benefiting and that we’re doing everything possible to prevent new taxes.”
“We have to have everything on the table for discussion and then make the best case for why something will or won’t work,” she said.